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California environmentalists commit the broken window fallacy

A proposal is currently being considered by the South Coast Air Quality Management District Board which would restrict bonfires on beaches in Los Angeles and Orange County.

Those in favor of restrictions are citing pollution concerns as a reason for removing the rings in which bonfires may legally be made. The pollution rate from standing around one beach fire ring is “is the equivalent of gathering around the exhaust of three diesel trucks,” said Philip Fine, assistant deputy executive officer for Science & Technology Advancement at the air district. “Thirty fire rings put out as much fine particulate pollution as a large oil refinery.”

The problem with the type of arguments made by Mr. Fine and other air quality regulators is that they focus on what is seen and ignore what is unseen. This is one of the most persistent errors in economics, and as we will see, in environmental policy as well. It was pointed out by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, and has become known as the glazier's fallacy or the broken window fallacy.

The broken window fallacy gets its name from the parable of the broken window, which was discussed by Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay Ce qu'on voit, et ce qu'on ne voit pas (That which is seen, and that which is not seen) to illustrate why destruction, and the resources and effort required to rebuild after destruction, is not a net-benefit to society. The parable demonstrates that the modern economic concept of opportunity cost, along with unintended consequences, has an effect on economic activity that is frequently ignored.

Bastiat told a parable about a shopkeeper's son who threw a rock through the window of the family business. The glazier then gets the business of repairing the window, and then he can buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is seen. But if the shopkeeper did not have to fix his window, he could spend his money on something else. Perhaps he could buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is unseen.

Bastiat, along with Austrian School economists, often used this story figuratively, with the glazier representing special interests and the boy who breaks the window representing government intervention. But in this case, a different interpretation is required. In this case, what is seen is that bonfires burn wood, which creates carbon emissions and other pollutants. But what the environmentalists fail to realize is that banning bonfires on California beaches will not end the pollution caused by burning wood. A reduction in bonfires will decrease the demand for the wood used to make the bonfires, thus contributing to a downturn in the logging business, which will mean that fewer trees are harvested from forests. This increased afforestation will bring problems of increased drying of the surrounding environment and crowding out of indigenous species. The drying of the forests combined with a greater number of trees will lead to an increase in forest fires, as has already been seen in the Mountain West over the past century. The higher temperatures of forest fires relative to bonfires will burn the wood more completely, resulting in even greater pollution. More frequent and more destructive forest fires will also result in more deaths and more destruction of property.

So while one can say that short term pollution will be reduced on California beaches by banning bonfires, to say that this results in a net reduction in overall pollution over the long term is to commit the broken window fallacy.

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