Henry Hazlit—The Blessings of Destruction

economics in one lessonBY HENRY HAZLIT

Essential Works: The Freeman


Economics In One Lesson, Part 2, Chapter 3


So we have finished with the broken window. An elementary fallacy. Anybody, one would think, would be able to avoid it after a few moments’ thought. Yet the broken window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics. It is more rampant now than at any time in the past. It is solemnly reaffirmed every day by great captains of industry, by chambers of commerce, by labor union leaders, by editorial writers and newspaper columnists and radio commentators, by learned statisticians using the most refined techniques, by professors of economics in our best universities. In their various ways they all dilate upon the advantages of destruction.

Though some of them would disdain to say that there are net benefits in small acts of destruction, they see almost endless benefits in enormous acts of destruction. They tell us how much better off economically we all are in war than in peace. They see “miracles of production” which it requires a war to achieve. And they see a post-war world made certainly prosperous by an enormous “accumulated” or “backed-up” demand. In Europe they joyously count the houses, the whole cities that have been leveled to the ground and that “will have to be replaced.” In America they count the houses that could not be built during the war, the nylon stockings that could not be supplied, the worn-out automobiles and tires, the obsolescent radios and refrigerators. They bring together formidable totals.

It is merely our old friend, the broken-window fallacy, in new clothing, and grown fat beyond recognition. This time it is supported by a whole bundle of related fallacies. It confuses need with demand. The more war destroys, the more it impoverishes, the greater is the postwar need. Indubitably. But need is not demand. Effective economic demand requires not merely need but corresponding purchasing power. The needs of China today are incomparably greater than the needs of America. But its purchasing power, and therefore the “new business” that it can stimulate, are incomparably smaller.

But if we get past this point, there is a chance for another fallacy, and the broken-windowites usually grab it. They think of “purchasing power” merely in terms of money. Now money can be run off by the printing press. As this is being written, in fact, printing money is the world’s biggest industry—if the product is measured in monetary terms. But the more money is turned out in this way, the more the value of any given unit of money falls. This falling value can be measured in rising prices of commodities. But as most people are so firmly in the habit of thinking of their wealth and income in terms of money, they consider themselves better off as these monetary totals rise, in spite of the fact that in terms of things they may have less and buy less. Most of the “good” economic results which people attribute to war are really owing to wartime inflation. They could be produced just as well by an equivalent peacetime inflation. We shall come back to this money illusion later.

Now there is a half-truth in the “backed-up” demand fallacy, just as there was in the broken-window fallacy. The broken window did make more business for the glazier. The destruction of war will make more business for the producers of certain things. The destruction of houses and cities will make more business for the building and construction industries. The inability to produce automobiles, radios, and refrigerators during the war will bring about a cumulative post-war demand for those particular products.

To most people this will seem like an increase in total demand, as it may well be in terms of dollars of lower purchasing power. But what really takes place is a diversion of demand to these particular products from others. The people of Europe will build more new houses than otherwise because they must. But when they build more houses they will have just that much less manpower and productive capacity left over for everything else. When they buy houses they will have just that much less purchasing power for everything else. Wherever business is increased in one direction, it must (except insofar as productive energies may be generally stimulated by a sense of want and urgency) be correspondingly reduced in another.

The war, in short, will change the post-war direction of effort; it will change the balance of industries; it will change the structure of industry. And this in time will also have its consequences. There will be another distribution of demand when accumulated needs for houses and other durable goods have been made up. Then these temporarily favored industries will, relatively, have to shrink again, to allow other industries filling other needs to grow.

It is important to keep in mind, finally, that there will not merely be a difference in the pattern of post-war as compared with pre-war demand. Demand will not merely be diverted from one commodity to another. In most countries it will shrink in total amount.

This is inevitable when we consider that demand and supply are merely two sides of the same coin. They are the same thing looked at from different directions. Supply creates demand because at bottom it is demand. The supply of the thing they make is all that people have, in fact, to offer in exchange for the things they want. In this sense the farmers’ supply of wheat constitutes their demand for automobiles and other goods. The supply of motor cars constitutes the demand of the people in the automobile industry for wheat and other goods. All this is inherent in the modern division of labor and in an exchange economy.

This fundamental fact, it is true, is obscured for most people (including some reputedly brilliant economists) through such complications as wage payments and the indirect form in which virtually all modern exchanges are made through the medium of money. John Stuart Mill and other classical writers, though they sometimes failed to take sufficient account of the complex consequences resulting from the use of money, at least saw through the monetary veil to the underlying realities. To that extent they were in advance of many of their present-day critics, who are befuddled by money rather than instructed by it. Mere inflation—that is, the mere issuance of more money, with the consequence of higher wages and prices—may look like the creation of more demand. But in terms of the actual production and exchange of real things it is not. Yet a fall in post-war demand may be concealed from many people by the illusions caused by higher money wages that are more than offset by higher prices.

Post-war demand in most countries, to repeat, will shrink in absolute amount as compared with pre-war demand because post-war supply will have shrunk. This should be obvious enough in Germany and Japan, where scores of great cities were leveled to the ground. The point, in short, is plain enough when we make the case extreme enough. If England, instead of being hurt only to the extent she was by her participation in the war, had had all her great cities destroyed, all her factories destroyed and almost all her accumulated capital and consumer goods destroyed, so that her people had been reduced to the economic level of the Chinese, few people would be talking about the great accumulated and backed-up demand caused by the war. It would be obvious that buying power had been wiped out to the same extent that productive power had been wiped out. A runaway monetary inflation, lifting prices a thousand fold, might none the less make the “national income” figures in monetary terms higher than before the war. But those who would be deceived by that into imagining themselves richer than before the war would be beyond the reach of rational argument. Yet the same principles apply to a small war destruction as to an overwhelming one.

There may be, it is true, offsetting factors. Technological discoveries and advances during the war, for example, may increase individual or national productivity at this point or that. The destruction of war will, it is true, divert post-war demand from some channels into others. And a certain number of people may continue to be deceived indefinitely regarding their real economic welfare by rising wages and prices caused by an excess of printed money. But the belief that a genuine prosperity can be brought about by a “replacement demand” for things destroyed or not made during the war is none the less a palpable fallacy.

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Henry Hazlit 2Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.


Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.