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Broken Window Fallacy

(also known as: glazier's fallacy)

Description: The illusion that destruction and money spent in recovery from destruction, is a net-benefit to society.  A broader application of this fallacy is the general tendency to overlook opportunity costs or that which is unseen, either in a financial sense or other.

This fallacy goes far beyond just looking for the silver lining, thinking positive, or making the best of a bad situation.  It is the incorrect assumption that the net benefit is positive.

Logical Form:

Disaster X occurred, but this is a good thing because Y will come, as a result.

Example #1:

Dad, I actually did America a favor by crashing your car.  Now, some auto shop will have more work, their employees will make more money, those employees will spend their money, and who knows, they might just come to your store and buy some of your products!

Explanation: I actually tried a variation of this argument when I was a kid -- it didn’t work, but not only did it not work, it is fallacious reasoning, and here is why: by crashing the car, a produced good is destroyed, and resources have to go into replacing that good as opposed to creating new goods.

Example #2:

The holocaust was a good thing overall.  It educated future generations about the evils of genocide.

Explanation: This is a real argument, I kid you not.  People tend to overvalue their own gain (the education) and devalue the losses that are unseen (the unimaginable suffering of the victims and their families). 

Exception: It might be the case when some kind of destruction actually can benefit society -- like in lightning striking the local crack house, and a soup kitchen being reconstructed in its place.

References:

Russell, D. (1969). Frederic Bastiat: ideas and influence. Foundation for Economic Education.



Registered User Comments

Anthony
Saturday, April 28, 2018 - 08:39:36 AM
Is this an example of 'the broken window fallacy'?
Ben Carson once said in 2015 during his Republican presidential campaign: "actually slavery was the best thing that could have happened to us. Because of slavery blacks were brought to America we met the Christian faith. We met Jesus Christ. If it were not for slavery we would all be in Africa, hanging from trees and worshiping Allah. God always get’s it right!"

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, April 28, 2018 - 08:45:52 AM
That's messed up. I would think this is a good example of the fallacy as well has horrible effects religious dogma has on morality. By this logic, Hitler was also the best thing that could have happened to us, because of course, "God always get's it right." (Sorry for the personal rant... sometimes it is difficult to stay objective in the face of such lunacy).

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Nik Dan
Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - 09:38:20 AM
"Exception: It might be the case when some kind of destruction actually can benefit society -- like in lightning striking the local crack house, and a soup kitchen being reconstructed in its place."

This isn't very convincing as a net benefit for society in general. Perhaps for the immediate neighborhood, but the crack addicts and their suppliers will simply move somewhere else (and very likely somewhere not far off from where they used to be), which does not benefit society.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - 09:41:50 AM
Technically, it still will, because now we have a soup kitchen when we didn't before even though we still have the crack-house in a different location. It's also possible that the new crack house won't be constructed (some non-zero chance). The point is, destruction doesn't always have to result in a net loss.

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Krista Neckles
Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 09:57:01 AM
Hello Sir,

Is this an example of Broken Window Fallacy: "You learn from failure, failure is a good thing, it is a good learning experience". Some people avoid failure at all costs. I would think that failure is a negative experience. If this saying is not an example of this fallacy is it an example of another?

I would like to know your opinion. Thank you.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 12:55:21 PM
I would say is an exaggeration. Failure "can be" a good thing in that it's negative effects could be less than its positive ones. One can also look at failures optimistically and learn from them, that is, make the best of a bad situation. But in general, failure sucks.

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