WHAT IS NOT SEEN: THE BROKEN WINDOW

Claude-Frédéric Bastiat (from here)
Claude-Frédéric Bastiat (from here)

The Great Depression made people desperate, including farmers. When prices dropped because people could not afford to pay, some dairy farmers just dumped their milk (see here and here). Such waste did not actually help anyone.

Consider the story of The Broken Window.

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James B., when his careless son happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact, that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation–“It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade–that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs–I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident has prevented.

Let us take a view of industry in general, as affected by this circumstance. The window being broken, the glazier’s trade is encouraged to the amount of six francs: this is that which is seen.

If the window had not been broken, the shoemaker’s trade (or some other) would have been encouraged to the amount of six francs: this is that which is not seen.

And if that which is not seen is taken into consideration, because it is a negative fact, as well as that which is seen, because it is a positive fact, it will be understood that neither industry in general, nor the sum total of national labour, is affected, whether windows are broken or not.

Now let us consider James B. himself. In the former supposition, that of the window being broken, he spends six francs, and has neither more nor less than he had before, the enjoyment of a window.

In the second, where we suppose the window not to have been broken, he would have spent six francs in shoes, and would have had at the same time the enjoyment of a pair o shoes and of a window.

Now, as James B. forms a part of society, we must come to the conclusion, that, taking it altogether, and making an estimate of its enjoyments and its labours, it has lost the value of the broken window.

Whence we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: “Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed;” and we must assent to a maxim which will make the hair of protectionists stand on end–To break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour; or, more briefly, “destruction is not profit.”

What will you say, Moniteur Industriel–what will you say, disciples of good M. F. Chamans, who has calculated with so much precision how much trade would gain by the burning of Paris, from the number of houses it would be necessary to rebuild?

I am sorry to disturb these ingenious calculations, as far as their spirit has been introduced into our legislation; but I beg him to begin them again, by taking into the account that which is not seen, and placing it alongside of that which is seen.

The reader must take care to remember that there are not two persons only, but three concerned in the little scene which I have submitted to his attention. One of them, James B., represents the consumer, reduced, by an act of destruction, to one enjoyment instead of two. Another, under the title of the glazier, shows us the producer, whose trade is encouraged by the accident. The third is the shoemaker (or some other tradesman), whose labour suffers proportionably by the same cause. It is this third person who is always kept in the shade, and who, personating that which is not seen, is a necessary element of the problem. It is he who shows us how absurd it is to think we see a profit in an act of destruction. It is he who will soon teach us that it is not less absurd to see a profit in a restriction, which is, after all, nothing else than a partial destruction. Therefore, if you will only go to the root of all the arguments which are adduced in its favour, all you will find will be the paraphrase of this vulgar saying–What would become of the glaziers, if nobody ever broke windows? (from here)

Who wrote this tale?

About the Author

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He led the free-trade movement in France from its inception in 1840 until his untimely death in 1850. The first 45 years of his life were spent in preparation for five tremendously productive years writing in favor of freedom. Bastiat was the founder of the weekly newspaper, Le Libre Échange, a contributor to numerous periodicals, and the author of sundry pamphlets and speeches dealing with the pressing issues of his day. Most of his writing was done in the years directly before and after the Revolution of 1848—a time when France was rapidly embracing socialism. As a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, Bastiat fought valiantly for the private property order, but unfortunately the majority of his colleagues chose to ignore him. Frederic Bastiat remains one of the great champions of freedom whose writings retain their relevance as we continue to confront the old adversary. (from here)

7 thoughts on “WHAT IS NOT SEEN: THE BROKEN WINDOW

  1. Very interesting, Tom. I hadn’t heard that before.

    Someone smart once explained economics to me as simply, “how many bananas can you afford to purchase? Everything beyond that is just a shell game.” Those simple words have really come back to me as our dollar declines, we just print more money, and people wind up buying even less bananas.

    As to shell games, you may appreciate this dark humor. My area is a really good lesson in how NOT to ever let the government try to stimulate your economy. So they’ve instituted this economic stimulus plan involving pop up businesses and success! Two renters have now moved into a commercial building they have rezoned. One is a non profit run entirely by volunteers…. and the other is the Democratic Campaign Headquarters. If I ever manage to figure out how either of these things are going to stimulate our economy, I’ll let you know.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @insanitybytes22

      When I was young, I use to enjoy reading books about history. As I have grown older, I have learned that even though they might be a little more difficult to understand, there is far more reward in reading books that were historic. Frédéric Bastiat’s writings fall into that category.

      Thank you for your comment and banana wisdom. Eat lots of bananas. Dietary staple. Good for me and inexpensive. When we cannot afford bananas, we will be in real trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story and introduction to Bastiat! It seems societies throughout history are always gravitating back and forth between collectivism and freedom and never learning a darned thing. Break windows so someone can benefit by fixing them or dig holes so someone else can fill them, what on earth could go wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great reminder of flawed economic theories. If I i would choose which King Solomon wisdom, advice would relate to anyone who believes that breaking a window is a positive, it would be this one.

    Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:17)

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

    Liked by 2 people

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