The Greatest Instance of the Broken Window Fallacy

We as a species are defined by our ability to create: given time we will build new wonders from all the matter we can lay our hands on. The true legacy of every generation is the new advances they create in technology - that progress in creation is the only thing likely be recalled in the distant future. Yet despite a history of creation piled upon creation, the urge to destroy is also strong; a certain love of destruction seems a hardwired part of human nature. See the broken window fallacy, for example, which is the 19th century formulation of an ancient truth: that people look upon the consequences of destruction selectively, and call it beneficial.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the [window broken by a child], 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 [the owner of the window] 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.

The lesson of the broken window is that destruction is never beneficial. It is a cost, and that cost must be paid at the expense of some other benefit. This lesson is needed: the broken window fallacy was widespread two centuries ago and remains so now. You will hear commentary after every natural disaster suggesting that the resulting expenditures on repair will benefit the economy, for example.

What is the greatest ongoing disaster, the cause of the greatest destruction? The answer is degenerative aging. Aging destroys human capital: knowledge, skills, talents, the ability to work, the ability to create. It does so at a ferocious rate, a hundred thousand lives a day, and all that they might have accomplished if not struck down. If translated to a dollar amount, the cost is staggering - even shifts in life expectancy have gargantuan value. And why shouldn't they? Time spent alive and active is the basis of all wealth.

It is unfortunate, but many people advocate for the continuation of aging, for relinquishment of efforts to build medicines to extend health life. Among these are people who welcome aging and death because to their eyes it gives a young person the chance to step into a role vacated by an older person. This is another form of the broken window, however: the advocate for aging looks only at the young person, and dismisses what the older person might have done were they not removed from the picture by death or disability. So too, any apologism for aging based on clearing out the established figures because it provides a greater opportunity for younger people to repeat the same steps, follow the same paths, relearn the same skills, redo the same tasks ... these arguments are the broken window writ large.

Vast wealth and opportunity bleeds into the abyss on a daily basis, destroyed because the people who embody that wealth and opportunity decay and die. We would all be wealthier by far given the medical means to prevent these losses. In your thoughts on aging, don't ignore the vast invisible costs - the work never accomplished, the wonders never created, because those who could have done so never had the chance. The enforced absence of the age-damaged, the frail, the disabled, and the dead is in and of itself a form of damage; the loss of their skills and knowledge is something that must be repaired. That requires work and resources that might have gone to new creations, rather than catching up from loss.

So this continues, and the perpetual devotion of resources to repair and recover from the losses of death and disability is a great ball and chain shackled to our ability to create progress. But most people don't think of at all - it is invisible to them. Nonetheless, the costs of aging that we labor under are so vast that the introduction of ways to rejuvenate the old will lead to an blossoming of wealth and progress the likes of which has never before been seen.


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