Actually, Breaking Windows Is Good

I wrote a piece in Gawker titled “Actually, Riots are Good: The Economic Case for Riots in Ferguson.” The piece is serious in many ways, but also trollish in a way that is obvious to a certain internet circle, but not others. What has surprised me is how underwhelming the criticisms of the piece has been.

Broken Windows
Outside of the usual one-line criticism about it being “dumb” or “absurd,” the main substantive criticism has been that the piece commits the Broken Window Fallacy (BWF). I have received no fewer than 100 tweets to that effect. It occurs to me now that the Broken Window Fallacy is one of those things dumb people who are sort of smart but not really gravitate towards.

Interestingly, the BWF is not actually a fallacy. Breaking windows can increase production and employment levels when there is excess capacity in the economy due to cyclical events. The little Bastiat fable of the BWF elides this fact because it has assumed in the background an economy operating at capacity. Now maybe you believe the economy will always operate at capacity because of some version of Say’s Law, but in that case the BWF should really be renamed the Fallacy of Believing Recessions Can Happen.

You can see how BWF is such a sweet spot for the sort of smart but not really bunch. Those smart enough to understand that people employed fixing windows can be employed somewhere else, but not smart enough to conceptualize how things change in an economy operating with slack are squarely in the zone of people who think the BWF is deeply profound.

More interestingly, my piece has nothing to do with the BWF. Literally nothing. The economic argument in the piece is not premised upon how many jobs will be created cleaning up and repairing Ferguson AutoZones. It is premised upon the deterrent effect the riots might have on other wealth destruction, namely the wealth destruction of killing human beings. I completely avoid all Broken Windows reasoning, but the half-wits who find that non-fallacy profound were unable to detect that. This is, I guess, to be expected if you buy into my theory that the BWF is natural home of the sort-of-smart-but-not-really crowd.

Crony Capitalism Isn’t Real
The other substantive argument I’ve frequently seen is well presented in this Robby Soave post at Reason.

The piece is desperate right from the start because it’s titled “LOL, Gawker Claims Ferguson Riots Good for Society, Economy, Something” as if I haven’t made a clear argument. This kind of title would make sense if I had made a kind of vague, emotive gesture about why the riots are good. But in fact, my argument for why they are good is brutally clear. I add up the dollar cost of Ferguson damage and the dollar cost of lives, incarceration, and oppression the riots might deter in the future, and then speculate that the latter is greater than the former. It’s as clear as a spreadsheet and has nothing to do with “society” or “something.” It’s literally just adding up figures.

Anyways, the piece believes it found the flaw in my argument:

So what’s the big problem with his argument? For starters, it assumes that riots “impose costs on state authorities.” But the police aren’t the ones getting their shit destroyed; innocent, random store owners are. So that cost is imposed in an extremely indirect manner, if at all.

This argument, which is not just coming from this guy, says that the riots will not deter police across the country because the costs of the riots are not felt by the police. But I deal with this directly in my Gawker piece:

Since state authorities are always and everywhere most concerned about capital and business interests, threatening to impose costs on them via rioting should have a similar impact on police incentives.

The point here is actually the same one that Reason makes when it says we have “crony capitalism.” Under “crony capitalism” (more commonly referred to as “capitalism”), the state acts as an agent for business interests. The state does not directly feel the costs of business, but since business is the state’s principal, the state does its bidding, which includes helping businesses avoid costs. You can believe crony capitalism exists or doesn’t exist (or, in the case of Reason, believe it exists when it flatters your politics and disbelieve it exists when it doesn’t), but my argument clearly has accounted for this apparent “problem.”

As I said at the top, I have been surprised by how weak these responses have been. I could make much better arguments against me than I have seen anyone else make yet.