June 27, 2011

Stephen Gordon: The “broken window” fallacy of “green” jobs

It’s always nice to see a reference to Frédéric Bastiat in a modern day setting:

But it is possible to oversell the green jobs theme. Job creation should not be a goal of environmental policy, no more than it should be a policy goal in the fields of health or national security. If, instead of hiring people, we could use magic to stop disease, crime and environmental degradation, we would. Pointing to jobs ‘created’ to fix these problems is an error that Frédéric Bastiat identified in his ‘parable of the broken window’. Broken windows generate work for glaziers, but that doesn’t mean that breaking windows will increase national income.

An often-quoted statistic goes something like this: “wind energy produces 27 per cent more jobs per kilowatt hour than coal plants and 66 per cent more jobs than natural gas plants”. This could well be true, but it is hardly a strong argument in favour of the employment opportunities that would be generated by investing in wind energy: hiring more people to produce less energy is not a strategy for prosperity. Similar gains in employment could be obtained by outlawing mechanical excavators so that all digging must be done by hand. It may make sense to encourage the development of wind power, but increased employment is most emphatically not one of the reasons for doing so.

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