Broken window fallacy

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The Broken window fallacy (also known as Glazier's fallacy) is a logical fallacy which assumes that destruction and the eventual recovery from it yields a net benefit to society. Someone employing the fallacy claims that destruction is an opportunity to recover and establish a state which is better than the one which came before it. To be consistent with that argument you either have to ignore the unseen misery created by the destructive event (which can possibly endure into the recovery stage) or believe the seen positive event which ensues afterwards significantly outweighs the (ideally temporary) misery.

The fallacy is an ad hoc fallacy and an informal fallacy.

Form

• Negative event X has occurred but that's good because positive event Y will happen as a result.

Explanation

The "parable of the broken window" written by 19th century economist Frédéric Bastiat[1] is the first instance where the fallacy is first explored (and from where it derives both its names). Albeit a fictitious example, it perfectly highlights the faulty logic behind this type of argument. In summary the story goes like this: a boy breaks a window of the shop belonging to his father. The father unsurprisingly is pissed because all of a sudden he has unexpected expenses to get the window fixed. Spectators console the father by telling him that repairing the damage will stimulate the local economy as the glazier will earn money for the work done and in turn the money earned by the glazier will be spent elsewhere, which means the incident has created new money circulation which will benefit other branches of the economy ad nauseum. Even if this scenario should pan out, it still totally ignores the fact that the father lost money which he could've also spend to help the economy, which he eventually would have done anyway, therefore making the argument void, for example buying a new pair of shoes, going to a restaurant with his wife or purchasing a new baseball bat for his vandalizing son.

Examples

Econonomics

• "Ghastly as it may seem to say this, the [9/11] terror attack — like the original day of infamy, which brought an end to the Great Depression — could even do some economic good." — Paul Krugman[2]
• Karl Marx believed society moves through predetermined stages and in order to reach full-fledged communism, an industrial capitalist phase would have to be passed first. Lenin, probably impatient with the words of his material prophet, was adamant that this process could be accelerated and therefore believed the hardships of his mandatory "state capitalism" would be necessary to reach his idea of an utopia quicker.[note 1]
• "By destroying the peasant economy and driving the peasant from the country to the town, the famine creates a proletariat… Furthermore the famine can and should be a progressive factor not only economically. It will force the peasant to reflect on the bases of the capitalist system, demolish faith in the tsar and tsarism, and consequently in due course make the victory of the revolution easier..." — Vladimir Lenin[3]

War

A popular form of this argument is justifying belligerent actions, where one party intervenes to remove an oppressive regime, defeating a ostensibly threatening enemy or expunging a disliked (competing) ideology. No matter which context, all these variations seek to establish a society which the arguer views as a significant improvement to the one currently in place.

• "There are voices which assert that the bomb should never have been used at all. I cannot associate myself with such ideas. … I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt the position that rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives." — Winston Churchill[4]
• One famous example is the Iraq war, the official reason of which was to oust Saddam Hussein, get rid of weapons of mass destruction and establish a new (secular) democratic state.[note 2]
• "Any military presence, should it be necessary, will be temporary and intended to promote security and elimination of weapons of mass destruction; the delivery of humanitarian aid; and the conditions for the reconstruction of Iraq." — George W. Bush[5]
• "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas." — Sam Harris[6]
• "Now, if you want to get into an argument, it could be considered that most of the 'disappeared' persons were meant to be former left-wing terrorist members who had already killed a lot of people before Pinochet took power during Allende's regime. Those organization were the VOP and MIR, then later came the FPMR. To keep them alive was a threat to the public security and was a problem that needed to be dealt with as the previous government didn't (and almost embraced their actions). Do I like people being killed? Absolutely not. Do I think it's correct to kill a future murder[er] in self-defense? Sadly, yes." — Free market advocate and Pinochet apologist on RationalWiki[7]

Income redistribution in general

The fallacy, which relates specifically to destruction, is separate from the hypotheses that inequality and income redistribution are either good or bad for the economy. This topic is hotly contested, often by people who worry about their money being taken or who want other people's.[8] Redistribution of money is not always a zero-sum game and it can stimulate the economy if the recipient is more likely to spend it.[9] For example if you take it from a miser who hoards it under their bed, and give it to someone who spends with local businesses, that may have a beneficial value. But it's better if money is distributed without also distributing death and destruction.