Hazlitt and the glazier’s fallacy
I’ve been working for quite a while now on a book which will respond to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson a book that was issued just after 1945 and has remained in print ever since. It’s an adaptation of the work of the 19th century French free-market advocate Frederic Bastiat for a US audience, specifically aimed at refuting the then-novel ideas of Keynes.
My planned title is Economics in Two Lessons. In my interpretation, Hazlitt’s One Lesson is that prices are opportunity costs. My Second Lesson is that, in the absence of appropriate government policy, private opportunity costs (market prices) won’t reflect social opportunity costs. Here’s a central piece of the argument, responding to Hazlitt’s exposition of Bastiat’s glazier’s fallacy.
A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $50 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $50 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.
Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $50 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $50 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.
The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.
The argument is compelling at first sight, but there’s a subtle problem. Implicit in the crowd’s reaction is the assumption that glaziers are short of work. If (as sometimes happens) glaziers have more jobs than they can handle, then there is no extra window – at best, the shopkeepers order simply displaces some other, less urgent, repair. Similarly, for Hazlitt’s riposte about the tailor to work, there must exist unemployed resources in the tailoring industry, so that the shopkeeper’s suit represents an addition to output. If not, the additional demand from the shopkeeper will raise the price of suits marginally, just enough to lead some other customer to buy one less suit. So, the story seems to imply that the economy is in recession, with unemployment across a wide range of industries.
With these facts in mind, we can tell a different story. Suppose that the glazier, having been out of work for some time, has worn out his clothes. Having fixed the window and been paid, he may take his $50 and buy a new suit. To make the story stop here, we’ll suppose that the tailor is a miser (a vice traditionally associated with the clothing industry, as with Silas Marner), and puts the money under his mattress. So, in this version of the story, the glazier and the tailor are both paid, and the social product is increased by a new window and a new suit.
What if the window had not been broken? Under the assumptions made so far, the shopkeeper would buy a new suit for $50, the tailor would hoard the money and the glazier would remain unemployed. The shopkeeper is better off, since (before the window was broken) he preferred a new suit to a new window. On the other hand, the glazier is worse off, since he gets no work and no suit. For society as a whole, both output and employment have increased.
So, the seeming refutation of the glazier’s fallacy falls apart on closer examination. On the one hand, Hazlitt uses language that implies the existence of unemployment. On the other hand, he is implicitly assuming that private and social opportunity cost are the same. The Second Lesson tells us that this won’t be true in general if the economy is in recession.
None of this means that it’s a good idea to go around smashing windows during recessions. Obviously, the benefit to society in replacing a window is less than that from a new window (for example, in a new shop). Moreover, there’s no reason to suppose that the propensities to save and spend will work out as they have been assumed in the story here. Perhaps the glazier is a miser and the tailor a big spender.
But governments can do much better than this. First, they can spend money on things that are more useful than breaking windows and repairing them (or, in Keynes’ presentation of the same argument, burying bottles full of money in coal mines and letting people dig them up). They can give money directly to individuals and families through benefits or tax reductions. Alternatively, they can create jobs by undertaking public works or by expanding public services.
Second, they can target their efforts towards groups who are likely to spend any additional income (in the economics jargon, they have a high marginal propensity to consume), most obviously low-income families.
The crucial point is that, under conditions of high unemployment, the wage received by a newly employed worker is not a measure of the opportunity cost of their labour; the opportunity cost is the time they would otherwise have spent in idleness.
fn1 Hazlitt describes his one lesson, in terms derived from Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What is Not Seen”, as
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
But this doesn’t describe any particular idea about economics; it merely assumes what is to be proven, that a complete assessment of policy will yield free-market conclusions.