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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Follow-Up: Broken Window Fallacy

My original post drew some comments by Alex Singleton at Samizdata and the Globalization Institute Blog (hat tip to freeman for the link).

Kevin Carson complains that it does not deduct "broken window" spending. Trashing a window and then replacing isn't his idea of real economic growth. Yet I think GDP is a good measure precisely because it keeps things simple. Government statistics are difficult enough to objectively collect as it is: if statisticians have to make value judgments about how much a natural habitat or a certain type of bird flying in the sky is worth, the statistic will soon lose any meaning.

If it keeps things deceptively simple, or imposes a level of simplicity greater than the subject matter warrants, it's a worthless statistic. Don't libertarians spend an awful lot of time combating ideas that, despite their appealing simplicity, are just plain wrong? An activist government can increase GDP by hiring the unemployed to dig holes and fill them in again. If the statistic only measures how much money is being spent, without regard to broken windows and crutches for legs broken by state capitalism, then it never had any meaning to begin with.

GDP isn't a perfect measure, but I think it's a mistake to say it overestimates "real growth". If anything, it underestimates it. In Off the Books, W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm point out that the statistic misses many of the improvements in living standards.

Seems to me that this argument doesn't really do much to rehabilitate the GDP. Cox and Alin didn't directly address any of GDP's shortcomings in the opposite direction, which I mentioned in the earlier post. They didn't address the extent to which GDP includes broken window spending. They didn't address the extent to which increased GDP registers the monetization of activity that previously took place in the household and barter economies; in that case, the GDP may actually reflected a reduced possibility for independent subsistence outside a corporatized economy. As I've pointed out earlier, forcibly driving subsistence farmers off their land through modern-day enclosures, and forcing them into the wage market, may make for a big increase in GDP--but not a big improvement in the dispossessed peasants' quality of life. And arguably, much of the exploding GDPs in third world countries reflects just such a development, in which peasants are forced against their will to work in sweatshops for the wages to meet needs they previously provided for themselves. Cox and Alin, finally, didn't address state-mandated increases in the cost and complexity involved in maintaining the same standard of living: Ivan Illich's "radical monopoly" by increasingly professionalized services and increasingly complex goods, the discontinuation of cheaper and simpler models of goods and of spare parts for them by cartelized industry, and other ways in which the floor is being raised under the minimum level of consumption for an acceptable standard of living (as Paul Goodman put it, by crowding out cheaper alternatives for subsistence, the state capitalism is making comfortable poverty less and less feasible).

So even if Cox and Alin are right about the positive qualitative factors ignored by GDP, we're left trying to make an off-the-cuff comparison between two unmeasurable deviations, in opposite directions, and to form an impressionistic judgment as to which is more significant.

Rather than Bastiat's broken window, by the way, a better analogy might be broken legs. How much of the nominal increase in the GDP of third world countries is the value of crutches, in the form of wages for labor, given to those whose legs were broken through forcible robbery of direct access to the means of subsistence?

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Blogger Unknown said...

I think your "broken leg" analogy is part of a larger scale opportunity cost that isn't addressed well by statistics in the first place.
What might those dispossessed and impoverished persons created, had they not been driven into their condition?

The "broken leg" analogy is nice and illustrative of that.

And the whole thing is really part of a larger argument about "growth" vs "prosperity"...

November 10, 2005 12:38 PM  

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