Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Ten Recurring Economic Fallacies, 1774–2004 | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on February 18, 2022

In other words, the country was so productive that the losses engendered by these excesses were quickly made up. He went on: “We often boast of the resources of our country, but we did not make the country. What ground is there for boasting here? 

The question for us is: What have we made of it?

H.A. Scott Trask

As an American historian who knows something of economic law, having learned from the Austrians, I became intrigued with how the United States had remained prosperous, its economy still so dynamic and productive, given the serious and recurring economic fallacies to which our top leaders (political, corporate, academic) have subscribed and from which they cannot seem to free themselves—and alas, keep passing down to the younger generation.

Let’s consider ten.

Myth #1: The Broken Window

One of the most persistent is that of the broken window—one breaks and this is celebrated as a boon to the economy: the window manufacturer gets an order; the hardware store sells a window; a carpenter is hired to install it; money circulates; jobs are created; the GDP goes up. In truth, of course, the economy is no better off at all.

True, there is a sudden burst of activity, and some persons have surely gained, but only at the expense of the proprietor whose window was broken, or his insurance company; and if the latter, the other policyholders who will pay higher premiums to pay for paid-out claims, especially if many have been broken.

The fallacy lies in a failure to grasp what has been foregone by repair and reconstruction—the labor and capital expended, having been lost to new production. This fallacy, seemingly so simple to explain and grasp, although requiring an intellectual effort of some mental abstraction to comprehend, seems to be ineradicable.

After the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001, the media quoted academic and corporate economists assuring us that the government’s response to the attacks would help bring an end to the recession. What was never mentioned was that resources devoted to repair, security, and war-fighting are resources that cannot be devoted to creating consumer goods, building new infrastructure, or enhancing our civilization. We are worse off because of 9-11.

Myth #2: The Beneficence of War

A second fallacy is the idea of war as an engine of prosperity. Students are taught that World War II ended the Depression; many Americans seem to believe that tax revenues spent on defense contractors (creating jobs) are no loss to the productive economy; and our political leaders continue to believe that expanded government spending is an effective way of bringing an end to a recession and reviving the economy.

The truth is that war, and the preparation for it, is economically wasteful and destructive. Apart from the spoils gained by winning (if it is won) war and defense spending squander labor, resources, and wealth, leaving the country poorer in the end than if these things had been devoted to peaceful endeavors.

During war, the productive powers of a country are diverted to producing weapons and ammunition, transporting armaments and supplies, and supporting the armies in the field.

William Graham Sumner described how the Civil War, which he lived through, had squandered capital and labor: “The mills, forges, and factories were active in working for the government, while the men who ate the grain and wore the clothing were active in destroying, and not in creating capital. This, to be sure, was war. It is what war means, but it cannot bring prosperity.” 

Nothing is more basic; yet it continues to elude the grasp of our teachers, writers, professors, and politicians. The forty year Cold War drained this country of much of its wealth, squandered capital, and wasted the labor of millions, whose lifetime work, whether as a soldier, sailor, or defense worker, was devoted to policing the empire, fighting its brush wars, and making weapons, instead of building up our civilization with things of utility, comfort, and beauty.

Some might respond that the Cold War was a necessity, but that’s not the question—although we now know that the CIA, in yet another massive intelligence failure, grossly overestimated Soviet military capabilities as well as the size of the Soviet economy, estimating it was twice as large and productive as it really was. The point is the wastefulness of war, and the preparation for it; and I see no evidence whatever that the American people or their leaders understand that, or even care to think about it. An awareness and comprehension of these economic realities might lead to more searching scrutiny of the aims and methods that the Bush administration has chosen for the War on Terror.

Only a few days after 9-11, Rumsfeld declared that the war shall last as long as the Cold War (forty plus years), or longer—a claim the administration has repeated every few months since then—without eliciting the slightest notice or questioning from the media, the public, or the opposing party. Would that be the case, if people understand how much a second Cold War, this time with radical Islam, will cost us in lives, treasure, and foregone comfort and leisure?

Myth #3: The Best Way to Finance a War Is by Borrowing

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