Henry Hazlitt’s classic book Economics in One Lesson (1946) actually delivered on the audacious title. “The art of economics” wrote Hazlitt, “consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” That is to say, the lesson of economics is that we have to look at the effects and the stories that are harder to see, but no less real and important.
1. Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, Revised Edition (New York: Currency, 1979), 17.
Hazlitt insisted that economics was haunted by the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences. In his famous example, Hazlitt imagines a young hoodlum who heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper is understandably furious, but soon the crowd that has gathered begins to postulate that the smashed window may actually be a great blessing. After all, the broken window will mean new business for the glazier (window repairer), who will then have an extra $250 to spend with other merchants, who will, in turn, have more money to spend on other goods and services. The naughty boy, who seemed at first to be a public menace, turns out to be a public benefactor.
But not so fast, argued Hazlitt. True, the broken window will mean more business for the glazier, and he will spend that money in other ways. But the $250 had to come from somewhere, and in this case it came from the shopkeeper. That was money he could have spent with other merchants and on other goods and services. At the very least, the economic benefit is nill; the shopkeeper’s pain is the glazier’s gain.
2. Ibid, 23–26.
It’s worse than that, however. Nothing new was created in the repair of the shop window. No new employment was added. No new productivity was achieved. If smashing windows is the secret to a growing economy, then war would be the best thing to befall a country. But, of course, it’s not. Perhaps war’s destruction might prove good business for construction companies and road contractors, but that’s only if we look at what is right in front of us. What we can’t see are the people with less money because they’ve been taxed to pay for the new construction. We can’t see all the other things they might have done with that money. We can’t see how people would have been put to more useful work had the city not been leveled. We can’t see the people bombed out of their homes, huddled in a temporary shelter (paid for by donations or by more taxes). In short, we see the obvious, but we ignore the secondary consequences.
The same fallacy is at work when it comes to economics and abortion. Of course, abortion is fundamentally wrong because life begins at conception, every human life is made in the image of God, and innocent persons have a God-given right to life. So even if abortion made great economic sense, abortion would still be wrong. But let’s think about the economic argument on its own merits. Many people argue that access to abortion is necessary because it helps women escape poverty and destitution. In its best form, the argument might go like this:
“Abortion isn’t desirable, but sometimes it is the only way to avoid a life of extreme want. Without access to abortion, too many women will be forced to bear children into the world that they can’t afford. The result is economic impoverishment for the child and for the woman. Abortion is an economic good, without which women would be much worse off.”
How should we respond to this line of thinking? For starters, we might respond from the child’s point of view that life is better than not living. Given the choice, I believe most of us prefer difficult circumstances to death. We might also ask the question whether any argument that can be used to justify killing children in the womb—for the sake of economic benefit—can be used just as logically to justify killing children outside the womb. I can tell you from experience children are least expensive when they first arrive. The real economic burdens come later. Can children be snuffed out at 6 or 16, or only at 6 weeks in the womb when the economic burden is least?
But more to the point, the economic argument in favor of abortion fails to take into account Hazlitt’s one economic lesson. It is easy to think how an individual woman might benefit economically from not having to provide for a child. What’s harder to see are all of the devastating economic incentives that abortion puts in motion.
The presence of widespread, legal, easily accessible abortion reinforces the narrative that men do not have control over their sexual appetites and that men should not be expected to fulfill their responsibilities as fathers. Far from empowering women, abortion empowers men to expect (if not outright demand) that sexual activity should be free from any consequences. This in turn disincentivizes men from considering marriage in the first place, which is the surest way to impoverish women.
3. See “Marriage is an Important Tool in the Fight Against Poverty” by W. Bradford Wilcox.
Abortion does for the poor what gambling does for the poor. Legalized gambling looks like an opportunity to escape poverty, but the social costs of gambling—lost productivity, lost employment, illness, divorce, abuse, neglect—are massive. Likewise, abortion looks like an economic gain, but only if we refuse to look at the larger social costs.
Overwhelmingly, abortions in America are procured by single women—85% of the women who had abortions in 2019 were unmarried. This may seem like a reason women need abortion access, but that argument fails to address the larger ways in which abortion cheapens sex, undermines marriage, and puts pressure on women to acquiesce to a male-centered perspective that views sexual intimacy as focused on physical gratification rather than ordered to family formation and child-rearing. If abortion looks like a socioeconomic “cure,” it is only first because it is a major component of the disease. And this is to say nothing of the lost economic activity that comes as a result of removing millions of potential American workers from the labor force and tax base.
Should abortion become less available and more stigmatized, some women will feel that as economic pain in the short-term. But the long-term socioeconomic gains will be significant, and the biggest winners (besides the children who get to live) will be women themselves.