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Henry Hazlitt’s Lessons for a Life of Liberty

One hundred and eighteen years ago this month marks the birth of the great economic thinker and communicator Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt is probably best known today for his book “Economics in One Lesson,” but his life also provides valuable personal lessons on how to advance the free-market ideas that make for a better world. Here are five traits Hazlitt exhibited that all of us who value economic freedom should seek to emulate. Hazlitt was radical Economist W.H. Hutt, in his wonderful little book, “Politically Impossible…?” talks about the role of the economist not as someone who merely looks for what is politically possible in the moment and recommends policies that are within that window, but someone who recommends what he knows is best even if currently improbable. If need be, Hutt adds, the economist may also offer a second-best option that is more palatable, but the good economist is duty-bound to make clear what the optimal policy is. Henry HazlittBy so doing, the economist may not change policy in the short term, but he is shifting the window of what is politically possible by injecting into public discourse economically sound ideas. Additionally, offering the most radical idea makes all marginal improvements look less radical and therefore more acceptable to the public. Economists eager to be “in the room” with policymakers tend to abandon sound economic analysis in order to champion policies that will gain them popularity. They often end up as mere tools of the political establishment, generating studies to justify what’s good for politicians rather than effecting genuine social change. Hazlitt resisted the lure of political praise and instead embodied the often uncomfortable role described by Hutt. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the Austrian tradition, Hazlitt was not an outsider, but was a popular and respected journalist and thinker. His radicalism had a cost. He had every incentive to play it safe and advocate toned-down positions more in line with the views of the day, but he did not. In Hazlitt’s view, the role of the economist was to educate on how economics works and what various policies would do. He believed that an understanding of sound economics by the body politic was the long-term solution to bad policy, and that giving palatable half-measures to politicians would not move us closer to liberty. Hazlitt wrote in support of an end to the government monopoly on currency and advocated a private gold standard. He thought poverty schemes should simply be abolished. His concern over Bretton Woods, which almost no one at the time opposed, created considerable tension in his office at the New York Times, but Hazlitt refused to endorse it, come what may. “I don’t think it’s worthwhile,” he told an interviewer late in life, “if you haven’t made up your mind, to write a piece saying, ‘Well, on one hand, but on the other hand.'” Hazlitt was practical Hazlitt was radical in his ideas, but practical in his methods. His practicality did not come from compromising or trying to be liked by adopting popular ideas. Instead, it came in his approach and style. He wrote for average people. He wrote unpopular ideas in popular outlets. Hazlitt’s outlets included not only the Freeman, but also the Nation, theWall Street Journal, the New York Times,theAmerican Mercury, Century, National Review, Newsweek and others. He was a literary critic of some renown, a financial reporter and an editorialist. Hazlitt’s review of Ludwig von Mises’s “Socialism” did much to popularize the book in the United States, and his review of F.A. Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” resulted in Reader’s Digest publishing a condensed version. Hazlitt once said of John Maynard Keynes that he was a brilliant and witty writer, but that, “We should never confuse wit with profundity.” Hazlitt had both and he used his wit and communication skill to convey the radical ideas of liberty so accessibly that “Economics in One Lesson” is still one of the most popular and powerful introductions to the basics of economic thinking. Hazlitt was humble Hazlitt’s humility is demonstrated by a somewhat paradoxical bit of evidence: his willingness to write on an incredibly wide range of issues and disciplines, despite not being a credentialed expert in any of them. At age 20 Hazlitt wrote his first book, “Thinking as a Science.” He had no formal education, yet he had the temerity to write a book on how to think. In the years that followed, he wrote a book on the role of cultural criticism, he wrote fiction, he wrote on moral philosophy, education, economics and much more. This may seem a sign of arrogance at first blush, but I think it reflects a deep humility. It’s safe to talk about areas on which you are credentialed. It’s a risk to put your opinions, no matter how well-thought-out, in front of the world on matters in which you are not considered to have expertise. It is likely, especially when you hold radical opinions, that you will get attacked and slandered for being a “hack.” To be willing to hazard this label, and to be confident enough in your ideas to openly explore other disciplines in the public eye takes humility. It is most often pride, not humility, which keeps us from putting our thoughts in the open for fear they might be imperfect or subject to ridicule. Even if we lack experience or credentials, we can learn from Hazlitt and be unafraid to explore other disciplines and share insights. It takes humility to risk not being taken seriously. Hazlitt was optimistic What is fascinating about Hazlitt’s outlook is how bleak it sometimes was, while at the same time how optimistic about the prospects for improvement. His novel, “Time Will Run Back,” portrays a 1984-esque world, a true dystopia where communism is global. Yet, unlike 1984 and other such stories, “Time” has a happy ending. In a world of complete communism, where even the mention of any ideas of capitalism has been wiped from history books, a man who has nothing but an open and inquiring mind single-handedly discovers the free-market through reason, trial and error, and brings it back. This is perhaps the best insight into how Hazlitt saw the world—no matter how far off current policies are from freedom and economic progress, so long as there are open and inquiring minds, the truth of sound market principles has a chance, and if given a try, will prevail. Even in the worst of possible worlds, the tiniest bit of economic understanding could ultimately triumph over collectivism, which was born out of ignorance. Put another way, ideas can save us. Hazlitt’s outlook makes plain that, far from being in Ivory Towers away from the trenches, what we are doing—educating in economic principles—is, in fact, the front lines of the fight for liberty. “The Conquest of Poverty” ends with this:
The irony is that the very miracles brought about in our age by the capitalist system have given rise to expectations that keep running ahead even of the accelerating progress, and so have led to an incredibly shortsighted impatience that threatens to destroy the very system that has made the expectations possible. If that destruction is to be prevented, education in the true causes of economic improvement must be intensified beyond anything yet attempted. (Emphasis mine)
Despite voicing frequent despair at the policies of his day, Hazlitt remained optimistic about power of ideas. He was confident that ideas, not politicians and interests groups, were the ultimate driving force in social change. Hazlitt was persistent Henry Hazlitt fought for the principles of liberty until he died at age 98. In his essay, “The Task is Ours,” Hazlitt reminded that whatever field the libertarian specializes in, “He MUST take a stand. He cannot afford to say nothing.” He goes on to quote Mises in “Socialism:”
Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping toward destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interest of everyone hangs on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.
At a 70th birthday dinner in his honor, Hazlitt gave a grim recounting of the state of liberty before reminding:
[N]one of us are yet on the torture rack; we are not yet in jail; we’re getting various harassments and annoyances, but what we mainly risk is merely our popularity, the danger that we will be called nasty names. We have a duty to speak even more clearly and courageously, to work hard, and to keep fighting this battle while the strength is still in us…. Even those of us who have reached and passed our 70th birthdays cannot afford to rest on our oars and spend the rest of our lives dozing in the Florida sun. The times call for courage. The times call for hard work. But if the demands are high, it is because the stakes are even higher. They are nothing less than the future of liberty, which means the future of civilization.
In his book “The Way to will Power,”Hazlitt advises:
Before you make any formal resolutions whatsoever, make certain that you genuinely desire to carry it out. Let there be no doubt that the end you have in view is so desirable or advantageous that it will outweigh all desires and advantages or all other ends that are likely to have to be foregone or abandoned in order to attain it. In short, be sure you are willing to pay the price.
Hazlitt was and did. His life provides an inspiring lesson for all who value freedom. Let’s endeavor to be as radical, practical, humble, optimistic and persistent in our efforts to advance the principles of liberty as Henry Hazlitt was for 98 years of life.
This post is adapted from a presentation given to the Association of Private Enterprise Education