As economist Sandy Ikeda summed it up last year, the argument is that “paying $100 to replace a broken window somehow creates more prosperity than having an intact window and spending that $100 on something else.” He goes on to ask, as many economists have: If destruction is so good for an economy, why wait for a hurricane or a bombing raid? Why not just bomb your own cities?
As Frederic Bastiat explained the “broken window fallacy,” a boy breaks a shop window. Villagers gather around and deplore the boy’s vandalism. But then one of the more sophisticated townspeople, perhaps one who has been to college and read Keynes, says, “Maybe the boy isn’t so destructive after all. Now the shopkeeper will have to buy a new window. The glassmaker will then have money to buy a table. The furniture maker will be able to hire an assistant or buy a new suit. And so on. The boy has actually benefited our town!”
But as Bastiat noted, “Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.” If the shopkeeper has to buy a new window, then he can’t hire a delivery boy or buy a new suit. Money is shuffled around, but it isn’t created. And indeed, wealth has been destroyed. The village now has one less window than it did, and it must spend resources to get back to the position it was in before the window broke. As Bastiat said, “Society loses the value of objects unnecessarily destroyed.”
In the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” the nefarious Rat used the destruction-as-stimulus argument to defend his client’s blowing up downtown: