Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Fallacy of the Broken Glass

Every year -- perhaps every day -- someone makes the claim that the destruction of valuable property is, on balance, a good thing for society. After all, destruction creates lots of new jobs rebuilding things, and it stimulates lots of new spending. Aren't we left visibly better off?

We heard this claim after Hurricane Hugo smashed into South Carolina. We heard it again when Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans. We will, no doubt, hear it the next time Mother Nature reminds us who is boss.

Bastiat heard the same claim in the 19th century. He wrote about it in one of his most famous essays, "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen." There, he used the example of a broken window to illustrate the truth that breaking things is not the path to national prosperity. A broken window will create work for the window repairman, but someone else loses work because the money that would have been used to buy something else goes into repairing the window. The window repairman is better off, but society is not.

Now, through the magic of movies, we have the pleasure of seeing the same claim surface in the 24th century. The following video is from the movie "The Fifth Element," a 1997 science fantasy about a set of stones that will determine -- what else? -- the fate of the human race. Gary Oldman plays the bad-guy Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, who serves the Great Evil.

Of course, the film reflects 20th century Hollywood morality. Bad-guy Zorg is a wealthy industrialist who looks like a hip Adolph Hitler and speaks with a Texas accent.

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