The Parable of the Broken Window
I want to share a parable with you. I wish I could claim it as my own, but it was written long before I was born by a man who taught me a whole lot about liberty and economics. In 1850, Frédéric Bastiat penned his Broken Window Fallacy in which he pointed out the flaw in thinking that disaster, war, or violent upheaval could lead to economic growth or prosperity—something that some people today still try to argue! He wrote:
Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has 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.
I based our first book, The Tuttle Twins Learn About The Law, on Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 essay, The Law, I named the wise neighbor who teaches Ethan and Emily loads of valuable lessons on everything from rights and government to gardening and taking care of the less fortunate “Fred” in honor of Bastiat, and I wrote one of our new teen books, The Tuttle Twins and the Case of the Broken Window, with this parable in mind.
The American Institute for Economic Research has recently put out some videos on Bastiat and his life and influences and how his unique education and the political revolutions that he lived through broadened his ability to understand and write about liberty in ways that others of his time weren’t able to do. The videos are great, and I recommend watching them.
Frédéric Bastiat is a man worth studying. His ideas shaped many of the great thinkers of the last hundred years, and they will continue to inspire and shape the great thinkers of the future if we can get our kids and grandkids reading his work and studying his life.
I can’t think of a better way to learn about economics and liberty as a family than with parent-child readings of Bastiat and Bastiat-inspired Tuttle Twins. We’ve even got adult copies of The Law available on our website for a buck! 😉