Hazlitt at 80: Rothbard's Tribute
[The Libertarian Forum, December 1974.]
It is indeed a pleasure to have the opportunity to honor Henry Hazlitt on his 80th birthday (November 28). One of the most distinguished and productive economists, writers, and intellectuals in this country, Hazlitt at 80 looks and acts a full 20 years younger. A remarkable combination of a brilliant and incisive mind, an unusually clear and lucid style, and an unfailingly cheerful, generous, and gentle soul, Henry Hazlitt continues to be a veritable fount of energy and productivity.
No one, moreover, can match Henry Hazlitt in blending great and broad erudition with a clarity and simplicity of style that makes him a joy to read. The great stylist H.L. Mencken's tribute to Hazlitt 40 years ago, that he was the only economist that could be understood by the general public, remains true to this day.
Why, then, does Henry Hazlitt remain grievously neglected by the nation's intelligentsia, by the self-proclaimed intellectual elite that moulds so much of "educated" public opinion? Why does Hazlitt, for example, never appear, either as writer or reviewed author, in the highly influential New York Review of Books?
There are several factors that contribute to this shameful neglect of one of the country's outstanding writers and thinkers. They all add up to his being totally out of the intellectual fashion of our day.
In the first place, he lacks both a PhD and an academic post — those twin passports to intellectual and academic respectability. For a scholar to discuss or footnote a book by Hazlitt — no matter how important or scholarly — would be to lose caste and brownie points in the status-anxious world of academe.
Secondly, in an age of hyperspecialization, when the fashion is to aspire to be the world's foremost expert on some extremely narrow and trivial topic, Henry Hazlitt simply knows too darn much about an enormous range and variety of subjects. Surely, then, he must be unsound.
Thirdly, Hazlitt writes too clearly; surely, someone who writes so that he can be generally understood lacks the "profundity" that only obscurantist jargon can provide. One of the main reasons for the popularity of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes among intellectuals was precisely the staggering obscurity of their prose; only when a writer is obscure can a cult of followers gather around to serve as the semiofficial interpreters and exegetes of the Master. Henry Hazlitt has always lacked that fog of incomprehensibility necessary to become celebrated as a Profound Thinker.
Fourthly, as an economist, Hazlitt has always been too honest to don the robes of soothsayer and prophet, to tell us precisely what the GNP or the unemployment rate is going to be in six or nine months.
Last but certainly not least, Henry Hazlitt has been totally outside the modern fashion in battling for many years as an uncompromising adherent of laissez-faire and the free-market economy. If only Hazlitt had been a statist or socialist, perhaps he would have been forgiven for his other intellectual sins. But not the greatest sin of all — of arguing, year in and out, for free-market capitalism.
In the course of his remarkably productive career, Henry Hazlitt has been distinguished as a journalist, editor, literary critic, philosopher, political scientist, and, above all, economist. His major base has been in journalism."In a healthier cultural and intellectual climate, he would have honors heaped upon him by scholars and by the general public."
Born in Philadelphia in 1894, young Hazlitt left college early to be a financial writer, successively for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Evening Post, and the Mechanics and Metals National Bank of New York. In 1921 he became financial editor for the New York Evening Mail. Then, during the 1920s, he expanded his horizons into the general editorial and literary fields, first as editorial writer for the New York Herald and the New York Sun, and then as literary editor for the Sun in the late 1920s, from which he went to the Nation as literary editor from 1930 to 1933. When H.L. Mencken left the editorship of the American Mercury in 1933, he was happy to select Hazlitt as his successor to that distinguished post.
After leaving the Mercury the following year. Hazlitt became an editorial writer for — mirabile dictu — the New York Times for the next dozen years. It was Hazlitt who largely accounted for whatever conservative tone the Times adopted during that era.
It was shortly after he joined the Times that an event occurred that would change and shape Hazlitt's life from that point on. Reviewing the first English translation of Ludwig von Mises's great work Socialism in 1936. Hazlitt was converted to a position of uncompromising adherence to free-market capitalism, and hostility to statism and socialism that would mark all of his work from that time forward.
Hazlitt became a leading follower of the great Austrian, free-market economist, and was to become one of Mises's closest friends and coworkers from the time that Mises emigrated to the United States during World War II. It was as a leading "Misesian" that Hazlitt was to write the bulk of his more than a dozen books and countless journal and newspaper articles.
As the New York Times moved inexorably leftward, Henry Hazlitt departed to become weekly economic columnist for Newsweek magazine. There, for 20 years, from 1946 to 1966, Hazlitt, week in and week out, penned lucid and incisive defenses of the free market, private property rights, and the gold standard, as well as trenchant critiques of the evils of government intervention in the economy.
In countless radio and television debates, and on the lecture platform, Hazlitt carried on the battle against the growth of big government. Furthermore, he was co-editor-in-chief of the Freeman in its early years, 1950 through 1953, when that magazine was a noble attempt to serve as a weekly periodical on behalf of the conservative-libertarian cause.
But it is his host of published books that will serve as an enduring monument to this great and much neglected man. The scope and merit are enormous: ranging from his first work on clear thinking, Thinking As a Science (1916, reissued in 1969), to literary criticism, The Anatomy of Criticism ( 1933).
Particularly important, both in quantity and quality, is his post-1936 or "Misesian" output. His first work in this period was a notable contribution to political science, A New Constitution Now (1942, and soon to be reissued; see Human Events, Nov. 16, 1974, page 10). This work, in which Hazlitt argued for the scrapping of the American Constitution on behalf of a European parliamentary government, was not calculated to please Constitutionalist conservatives.
But whether or not one agrees fully with Hazlitt, he made an extremely important point which has taken on far more importance in these days of unbridled executive and presidential power. For he argued that the great defect of the American Constitution is that it permits runaway executive power, unchecked by Congress or the public.
A parliamentary system could at least make the executive far more responsive to Congress, and serve as a check on executive tyranny. In the era of Watergate, there would have been no need for the clumsy impeachment process, since the president could have been removed far more easily and swiftly.
In 1946, Hazlitt published his most popular book, Economics in One Lesson, which remains to this day the best introductory primer to economic science. With his usual lucidity, Hazlitt set forth the merits of the free market, and the unfortunate consequences of all the major forms of government intervention, all of which continue to plague us today.
There is still no better introduction to free-market economics than Economics in One Lesson. The "lesson" derives from the 19th-century libertarian French economist Frédéric Bastiat, who was also distinguished for the clarity of his style: the difference between "what is seen" as a result of government intervention and "what is not seen."
For example, if the government taxes the public to build housing, what is seen is the new housing, which may seem on the surface to be a net advance; what is not seen is what the public would have done if they had been allowed to keep their own money.
The following year, Hazlitt came out with his booklet Will Dollars Save the World?, his dissection of the Marshall Plan and one of the first important critiques of the postwar foreign-aid program. This was followed by his Illusions of Point Four (1950), on Truman's boondoggle program of aid to what is now known as the "Third World."
In 1951, Hazlitt turned to the novel form, publishing what is one of my own favorite parts of the Hazlitt canon, The Great Idea (1951, later reissued as Time Will Run Back, 1966). The Great Idea was roasted by critics as a novel, but I confess I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it has long been one of my favorite works of fiction. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it frankly cloaks sound economic theory in a readable, novelistic form.
For one thing, it is one of the best and most thorough discussions of the economic fallacies of socialism to be found anywhere. The plot is fascinating: by happenstance, an intelligent political innocent inherits the post of dictator of a future World Communist State. Beginning simply as a search for ways of making the disastrous Communist economy work better, the dictator alters the economy, step by inexorable logical step, in the direction of freedom until he changes the world into a purely free-market economy and free society.
Beginning with allowing citizens to exchange their ration tickets, the dictator comes to rediscover the forgotten free market, gold money, and the rights of private property. If the aesthetes are worried about the lack of avant-garde symbolism or of morbid psychologizing in The Great Idea, then so much the worse for them!
A few years later came a veritable labor of love, The Free Man's Library (1956), Hazlitt's annotated bibliography of libertarian and conservative books. It still serves as the only work of its kind, and an updating of this book would be one of the most useful projects to inspire and instruct a new generation of libertarians.
In 1959, Hazlitt published his greatest contribution to economic science, the massive, thorough The Failure of the New Economics, a step-by-step and page-by-page evisceration of Lord Keynes's mischievous and enormously influential General Theory. Employing Misesian, "Austrian" economics in a masterful fashion, Hazlitt left not a shred standing of Keynes's famous work. It was a superb exercise in economic demolition.
The massive neglect of Fallacies by the economics profession, which, when it deigned to consider the book at all, dismissed it as mere "pamphleteering," is a shameful blot on the state of the economics profession. As a one-two punch to Keynesianism, Hazlitt followed up this work by collecting the best anti-Keynesian critiques by economists in his The Critics of Keynesian Economics (1960).
In the same year, Hazlitt wrote his searching critique of the inflationary policies of our time, warning of accelerating inflation and calling for a return to the gold standard in his What You Should Know about Inflation (1960, revised editions in 1965 and 1968). Happily, Hazlitt is now busily at work on a new book on this all-too-timely topic.
Not content with economics, political science, journalism, and literary criticism, Hazlitt next turned to an important work on political and ethical philosophy, The Foundations of Morality (1964). In a work fully as neglected by the academic philosophers as his economic writings were ignored by the nation's economists, Hazlitt argued for a utilitarian ethic and for the morality of free-market capitalism.
In his latest two books, Henry Hazlitt dealt with the vital problems of poverty and the welfare state: Man vs. the Welfare State (1970) and The Conquest of Poverty (1973). In these works, Hazlitt showed that only capitalism can conquer poverty and provide genuine welfare, and he demolished the fallacies of the welfare state. Also included is the best available refutation of the potentially disastrous Milton Friedman proposal for a "negative income tax."
Thus, throughout his remarkably productive life, Henry Hazlitt has fought for freedom and a free-market economy with a unique combination of the erudition of a scholar and the lucidity and popular appeal of a lifelong writer and journalist. In a healthier cultural and intellectual climate, he would have honors heaped upon him by scholars and by the general public. As it is, we can only do our part by greeting this vibrant and gracious gentleman, this distinguished scholar and libertarian, and by looking forward to the many important books and articles which will doubtless flow from his pen in the years to come.
This article was first printed in Human Events, November 20, 1974. It was reprinted in the Libertarian Forum, December 1974, pp. 6–7.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.