Fantasia on a theme by Frédéric Bastiat

A boy throws a rock, breaking the window of a restaurant. A businesswoman seated in the restaurant puts down her newspaper to begin pondering her concern for the youth of the world.   She remembers being young and needing help focusing on and planning for the future. The businesswoman decides to hire adolescents having trouble in school to run errands around her office. She knows they will not at first provide enough value to her in order to cover the expense of hiring them, paying taxes and meeting the legal requirements. Still, she wants to give back to her community, and this seems the best way to her.

A boy throws a rock, breaking the window of a restaurant.  The glazier who is hired to repair the window engages the owner of the restaurant in small-talk, and remarks upon how often this happens. He sympathizes with the owner of the restaurant, who laughs.

“We break so many dishes and glasses on a given day; the budget for repairs will easily cover this. It’s a known expense, and it’s trivial compared to the money I spend managing HR overhead.” She sighs. “The biggest hassle isn’t paying for you to come out here and fix it, but the time and energy I’ve lost to this distraction. I’ve been sitting on some cash for a while now, and trying to figure out which of the investments I could make would give me the best return. The broken window will eat a small amount of that cash , sure, but more damage was done by taking away my focus for a while. ”

The glazier uses some of the money given to him by the businesswoman to take a day off.  He hangs out with a physics professor friend of his, and they discuss the broken window.

A boy throws a rock, breaking the window of a restaurant. The physicist and her economist friend walk by, as planned. The economist shakes his head and says “I don’t like this experiment. It’s true that every time we pay some kid to break a window, some unforeseen good arises from our destruction. I agree that destruction often releases resources which have been allocated in low-risk investments for a long time. You claim that the owners of most resources  are often too removed from every day life – get up, go to work, come home, go to bed – for them to make sense of this modern world. The have little ability to comprehend the experience of the majority of the people of the world – who sell their labor to survive.  So with little comprehension of why things are the way they are, these wealthy people invest in the safest vehicles they can.  I don’t know if I agree, but I’ll accept your hypothesis for now. The safest vehicles tend to be large established institutions, which often use resources to protect their revenue streams through legal mechanisms. They often spend more money filing dubious patent infringement lawsuits and lobbying for protection than they do developing new products.  I agree with that for sure. It just seems to me that there must be some way to prevent the growth of stifling legislation other than paying adolescents to break windows every month.”

The physicist replies: “I believe you are only seeing half of my argument. Yes, destroying some old wealth has the small benefit of forcing a reallocation, but I doubt just doing this randomly would help. The greatest resources our world has are not material wealth or technology – they are emotional resources. The owner of the restaurant was more bothered by the distraction and frustration we effected, rather than the tiny amount of capital she spent to repair the window.   We have reduced her sense of calm and her focus – two forms of emotional capital which are quite valuable.  But by doing so, we dramatically increased her sense of care and desire for a better future; the adolescents she hires are now developing their ability to delay gratification, and have an increased sense of self worth and agency.  All of those resources – care, desire, self worth, agency – those are much more valuable than the window.”

The economist is now slightly perturbed and puzzled. “So you’re saying paying a bunch of men to dig holes in the ground would help the world by instilling them with a work ethic, giving them pride, and making them valued  by their society? ”

“You have to be careful,” the physicist responds. If they know what they are doing is worthless, you might also inflate their belief that the world is a ridiculous place and that there’s no sense in trying to understand anything.  If they develop a work ethic that is limited to doing what they are told regardless of how pointless it seems, it’s probably a small net gain, if anything. A child is foolish enough to buy the argument that he is ‘breaking a window for science’ but most adults would see that as absurd. ”

The economist nods. “So you chose breaking a window because you hoped perhaps you’d ignite the child’s curiosity as well?”

The physicist laughed. “No, I did that because I knew it would rouse your sense of indignation. Care about problems in the world is a valuable resource as well, but it’s a volatile commodity. It’s best you don’t go long in that.”

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