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Hazlitt's Reflections at 70

Mises Daily: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 by

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[On November 29, 1964, Henry Hazlitt was honored at a 70th birthday celebration at the New York University Club in New York City. His remarks on that occasion, reproduced here on Mises.org, were published in the posthumous 1993 collection of essays, The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt.Download PDF]

When I look back on my life, what strikes me is that I have been on the whole a very lucky man — and, above all, lucky in my friends.

My luck began, perhaps, in the year in which I was born, 1894. I have the advantage over most of you in knowing what it was like to live in the 19th century. Of course, I only had about six years of it, and I confess I may not even have been aware that it was the 19th century.

But, speaking more seriously, my first 20 years were spent before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Looking back at it, it seems now an idyllic world. There had been no major international wars for a century. There were no revolutions every week and riots every day. People could even trust their currency. There was no nuclear bomb hanging over us. There was no Communist government and not even an important organized Communist movement. Even socialism was merely a matter of academic discussion.

It was an age of innocence. How innocent it was, I well remember. At that time none of us knew, or needed to care, what was happening in such far-off places as China, or Vietnam, or the Congo. In fact, to tell the truth, we didn't pay much attention to anything that was going on outside of our own borders.

I remember those astounding days when World War I broke out. I was working at The Wall Street Journal. We used to get down to the job at about 8:00 in the morning and stay until about 4:00 in the afternoon. I remember the shocking day when the New York Stock Exchange failed to open its doors. It was to remain closed for many months afterward. I remember a day or two later, when England declared war on Germany. The excitement of that day, and the amount of work and confusion it imposed on myself, as a young fellow who was part stenographer and part reporter, proved exhausting. I didn't get away until about 7:30 P.M. — a day of 12 exhausting hours. As I was walking back to the trolley in the darkening streets — The Wall Street Journal was then at 44 Broad Street — the newsboys were all out on the streets shouting their extras. I can still hear the voices in my ears. They were shouting, "Extra! Extra! Giants win!" I do not exaggerate or invent. That was it. That was how the news of World War I came to the great metropolis of New York.

Beginnings

Perhaps you wonder how I got on The Wall Street Journal. Like everything else in my life, it seems to have been the result of a series of accidents.

In the last year of high school, I developed what I suppose might be called intellectual awareness. I got interested in philosophy and psychology. My great gods were Herbert Spencer and William James. I was going to go to Harvard, and major in psychology, and become a professor of psychology, writing a little philosophy on the side, like William James. But none of this was to be, because of something called a shortage of funds. So I had to compromise by going to the College of the City of New York, where the tuition was free. But even after a few months there I had to face the fact that I had to quit college and go to work to support my mother as well as myself.

However, I hadn't given up the idea of being a writer. I thought the best way to be that and still earn a living was to get on a newspaper. Well, for some reason or other, none of the major New York newspapers seemed to be very eager for my services, and the only place I could find an opening was on The Wall Street Journal. So I grabbed it.

The Wall Street Journal at that time (if I seem now to speak in somewhat derogatory terms of it) was comparatively obscure, and not the great national newspaper that it is today, under the editorship of Vermont Royster. I was supposed to know something about business and finance. I knew nothing about business or finance — and, moreover, I hadn't the slightest ambition to learn. My head was in the clouds, dreaming of philosophy. Every evening — in all the time I could spare, anyway, from dancing and entering dance contests — I was secretly writing a book with the ambitious title of Thinking as a Science.

Yes, the thing was published — and it sold, too. In fact, it outsold anything I have since written except Economics in One Lesson and Will Dollars Save the World? And that reminds me of a wonderful piece of advice that was given by the celebrated editor Arthur Brisbane to a friend of mine who was in his first year in the newspaper game, when he asked the great man for some words of wisdom.

"Young man," said Arthur Brisbane, "remember one thing. Never lose your superficiality."

It was very wise advice, and every time I have forgotten it I have got into trouble.

In order to hold my job, I finally did get around to reading books on business and finance, and I began to read the standard economic textbooks of the period. Then I made the amazing discovery that economics required just as much hard thought, subtle thought, precise thought as the most abstruse problems of philosophy or psychology or physical science. A while later I stumbled upon a wonderful book in the public library. (As I say, when I look back everything important that has happened to me seems to have been accidental.) I thought it was my private discovery, and it practically was at that time. The book was titled The Common Sense of Political Economy by Philip H. Wicksteed. For the first time, the world of economics really opened up to me, and I caught my first glimpse of the fact — which Ludwig von Mises was later to make much more explicit — that the world of economics is almost coextensive with the whole world of human action and of human decision.

The Influence of Friends

I started to say how lucky I've been in my friends: but I have time to talk of only three or four of them.

The first one I want to talk about is Benjamin M. Anderson, who died in 1949. He was first the economist of the Bank of Commerce and later of the Chase National Bank. I was, at that time, in the early 1920s, financial editor of the New York Evening Mail. I used to go to see him about once a week to talk about economic developments. I read his magnificent book, The Value of Money, which is one of the classics of American economic writing and world monetary literature. Through his incisive mind, in my discussions with him, my thought was enormously stimulated.

But here comes another set of accidents. I got sort of pushed into the job as the book editor of the New York Sun. Five years later I became literary editor of The Nation, and so I spent the ten years from 1925 to 1934 writing on general literature.

In those ten years, among others whom I met was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. I first admired him through his books, and later got to know him personally. In fact, there was a time when he and his then publisher, W. W. Norton, suggested that I do a biography of him. I spent a good deal of time with him, in New York and London, in the period of 1928–1929, until one day, while reminiscing for my benefit, he suddenly said, "You know, I have had a very interesting life; I think I'd like to do my own autobiography." And he did — 25 years later!

I come now to H.L. Mencken. I had admired and almost idolized Mencken as a writer long before I got to meet him, about 1930 or so. Three years later he astonished me by making the big mistake of his life: he asked me to succeed him as editor of The American Mercury, which for a while I did. In 1934 I got back into the economic field again. I went from my short editorship of The American Mercury to The New York Times, for which I wrote most of the financial and economic editorials for the next twelve years.

I got to know, then, first through his books and then by the great honor of meeting him personally, Ludwig von Mises. His thought has had more influence on me than the thought of any other single person in the last 25 years.

When I recall some of these great friends, when I look over this wonderful gathering and see friends who have come from abroad especially for this occasion, when I see, here and there and yonder, friends of national and international fame, when, to name only those on this dais here, I see Ludwig von Mises, William Buckley, Leonard Read, Milton Friedman, Karl Brandt, Lawrence Fertig, and Kenneth Wells, I realize how incredibly fortunate I have been in my friends.

Progress or Retrogression?

I have been, indeed, a very lucky man. But whether our generation, as such, is lucky, is another question. We live in an extraordinary age, an astonishing age by any standard. So far as any of us knows, it may even be the final age of mankind! In any case, it's very hard to say whether this is an age of unparalleled progress, or unparalleled retrogression, disintegration, and decadence. It seems to depend on where you look.

Let us look at the arts, for example. Take painting. There are probably more people painting today than ever before in the history of mankind. There is a more widespread spectator interest in painting; there is more sophisticated knowledge about it. And yet we find a complete anarchy of standards in painting. We find revolt for revolt's sake, a restless struggle for "originality" that has led to mere freakishness, to ugliness and to a pretentious unintelligibility that in most cases covers incompetence and an essential emptiness.

Much the same thing might be said about music and other arts. But each of these fields is complicated. If we take the field of architecture and engineering, for example, we are appalled by the ugly and freakish buildings that are being put up. But, on the other hand, just last week we witnessed the completion and opening of the magnificent Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

When we come to the realm of morality we find an appalling disintegration of moral values and moral standards. But I've already written a 400-page book on that — The Foundations of Morality — and won't go into it further here.

Perhaps the darkest pages in the history of our era will be in politics. We find either degenerate democracy and demagogy or dictatorship. We find a constant spread of lawlessness, a constant resort to mob action, a cancerous growth in the power of the state, a turning toward more and more socialism and regimentation, and constant threats to and restrictions of liberty.

Over everything hangs the shadow of the nuclear bomb. Nobody knows what the outcome of that will be, or whether the problem is even soluble.

But when we look at the world of science, the world of technological progress and production, the creation of the necessaries and amenities of life, the achievements of today exceed anything that mankind has ever known or dreamed of in the past. We cannot dismiss this as a merely material progress. Even "mere material progress" means an immense gain in human, cultural and spiritual values. Look what it has meant in human longevity alone! A baby boy born in ancient Rome had a life expectancy of 22 years. Born in 1900, he had a life expectancy of 47 years. Born today he has a life expectancy of 70 years. I don't think any of us can afford to be ungrateful to the present age. If it hadn't been for the enormous progress that began in the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, I doubt whether most of us in this room would ever have been born. And, if I had been one of those lucky enough to be born, I doubt that I would today be celebrating my 70th birthday, in good health and, as I like to think, not yet senile.

Great Science, Great Scientists

Our present material progress is the result, moreover, of great triumphs of the human mind, of great triumphs in theoretical sciences, of unprecedented precision, profundity, and boldness of thinking.

This is an age not only of great science; it is an age of great scientists. I have heard it said that nine-tenths of all the scientists who ever lived are living today. I don't know whether that's true or not, but it may very well be. I know that in the field I know best and which many of you know best, the field of economics, it could be pretty safely said that of all the economists who ever lived, good or bad, nine-tenths of them are alive today.

But this brings us to our problem. Those of us who place a high value on human liberty, and who are professionally engaged in the social sciences — in economics, in politics, in jurisprudence — find ourselves in a minority (and it sometimes seems a hopeless minority) in ideology. There is a great vogue in the United States today for "liberalism." Every American leftist calls himself a liberal! The irony of the situation is that we, we in this room, are the true liberals, in the etymological and only worthy sense of that noble word. We are the true adherents of liberty. Both words — liberal and liberty — come from the same root. We are the ones who believe in limited government, in the maximization of liberty for the individual and the minimization of coercion to the lowest point compatible with law and order. It is because we are true liberals that we believe in free trade, free markets, free enterprise, private property in the means of production; in brief, that we are for capitalism and against socialism. Yet this is the philosophy, the true philosophy of progress, that is now called not only conservatism, but reaction, the radical Right, extremism, Birchism, and only Bill Buckley here knows how many other terrible things it's called.

Now this is no petty or narrow issue that ties us in this room together. For on the outcome of the struggle in which we are engaged depends the whole future of civilization. Our friend, Friedrich Hayek, in his great book, The Road to Serfdom, which was published 20 years ago, pointed out that it was not merely the views of Cobden and Bright that were being abandoned, or even of Hume and Adam Smith, or even of Locke and Milton. It was not merely the liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries that was being abandoned; it was the basic individualism that we had inherited from Christianity and the Greek and Roman world, and that was reflected in the writings of such figures as Pericles and Thucydides. This is what the world is in danger of abandoning today. Why? Why, if, as we like to think, reason is on our side? Why are we drifting deeper and deeper into socialism and the dark night of totalitarianism? Why have those of us who believe in human liberty been so ineffective?

"We Haven't Been Good Enough"

I am going to give what is no doubt a terribly oversimplified answer to that question. In the first place, we are almost hopelessly outnumbered. Our voices are simply drowned out in the general tumult and clamor. But there is another reason. And this is hard to say, above all to an audience of this sort, which contains some of the most brilliant writers and minds in the fields of economics, of jurisprudence, of politics, not only of this age but of any age. But the hard thing must be said that, collectively, we just haven't been good enough. We haven't convinced the majority. Is this because the majority just won't listen to reason? I am enough of an optimist, and I have enough faith in human nature, to believe that people will listen to reason if they are convinced that it is reason. Somewhere, there must be some missing argument, something that we haven't seen clearly enough, or said clearly enough, or, perhaps, just not said often enough.

A minority is in a very awkward position. The individuals in it can't afford to be just as good as the individuals in the majority. If they hope to convert the majority they have to be much better; and the smaller the minority, the better they have to be. They have to think better. They have to know more. They have to write better. They have to have better controversial manners. Above all, they have to have far more courage. And they have to be infinitely patient.

When I look back on my own career, I can find plenty of reasons for discouragement, personal discouragement. I have not lacked industry. I have written a dozen books. For most of 50 years, from the age of 20, I have been writing practically every weekday: news items, editorials, columns, articles. I figure I must have written in total some 10,000 editorials, articles, and columns; some 10,000,000 words! And in print! The verbal equivalent of about 150 average-length books!

And yet, what have I accomplished? I will confess in the confidence of these four walls that I have sometimes repeated myself. In fact, there may be some people unkind enough to say I haven't been saying anything new for fifty years! And in a sense they would be right. I have been preaching essentially the same thing. I've been preaching liberty as against coercion; I've been preaching capitalism as against socialism; and I've been preaching this doctrine in every form and with any excuse. And yet the world is enormously more socialized than when I began.

There is a character in Sterne or Smollett — was it Uncle Toby? Anyway, he used to get angry at politics, and every year found himself getting angrier and angrier and politics getting no better. Well, every year I find myself getting angrier and angrier and politics getting worse and worse.

But I don't know that I ought to brag about my own ineffectiveness, because I'm in very good company. Eugene Lyons has been devoting his life to writing brilliantly and persistently against Communism. He now even has the tremendous circulation of the Reader's Digest behind him. And yet, at the end of all these years that he has been writing, Communism is stronger and covers enormously more territory than when he started. And Max Eastman has been at this longer than any of the rest of us, and he's been writing a poetic and powerful prose and throwing his tremendous eloquence into the cause, and yet he's been just as ineffective as the rest of us, so far as political consequences are concerned.

Yet, in spite of this, I am hopeful. After all, I'm still in good health, I'm still free to write, I'm still free to write unpopular opinions, and I'm keeping at it. And so are many of you. So I bring you this message: Be of good heart: be of good spirit. If the battle is not yet won, it is not yet lost either.

Our Continuing Duty

I suppose most of you in this room have read that powerful book, George Orwell's 1984. On the surface it is a profoundly depressing novel, but I was surprised to find myself strangely encouraged by it. I finally decided that this encouragement arose from one of the final scenes in it. The hero, Winston Smith, is presented as a rather ordinary man, an intelligent but not a brilliant man, and certainly not a courageous one. Winston Smith has been keeping a secret diary, in which he wrote: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two and two makes four." Now this diary has been discovered by the Party. O'Brien, his inquisitor, is asking him questions. Winston Smith is strapped to a board or a wheel, in such a way that O'Brien, by merely moving a lever, can inflict any amount of excruciating pain upon him (and explains to him just how much pain he can inflict upon him and just how easy it would be to break Smith's backbone). O'Brien first inflicts a certain amount of not quite intolerable pain on Winston Smith. Then he holds up the four fingers of his left hand, and says, "How many fingers am I holding up? Winston knows that the required answer is five. That's the Party answer. But Winston can't say anything else but four. So O'Brien moves the lever again, and inflicts still more agonizing pain upon him, and says, "Think again. How many fingers am I holding up?" Winston Smith says, "Four. Four. Four fingers." Well, he finally capitulates, as you know, but not until he has put up a magnificent battle.

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None of us is 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. So, before we are in the position of Winston Smith, we can surely have enough courage to keep saying that two plus two equals four.

This is the duty that is laid upon us. We have a duty to speak even more clearly and courageously, to work harder, and to keep fighting this battle while the strength is still in us. But I can't do better than to read the words of the great economist, the great thinker, the great writer, who honors me more than I can say by his presence here tonight, Ludwig von Mises. This is what he wrote in the final paragraph of his great book on socialism 40 years ago:

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 towards destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang 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.

Those words — uncannily prophetic words — were written in the early 1920s. Well, I haven't any new message, any better message than that.

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 human liberty, which means the future of civilization.