The (Deceptively Simple) Greatness of Henry Hazlitt

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[The following is excerpted from a Foreword by Jeff Deist to our upcoming hardcover version of Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. Hazlitt was indeed a self-taught economist, but first and foremost he was a journalist. As a result, everything Hazlitt wrote exhibits great clarity and economy of words– making him the perfect choice for lay readers who find economic theory intimidating. If you’d like to be listed as a patron of this most vital and important book, click here.] 

Is Economics in One Lesson the most important book on the market economy ever written for laymen? Is its author, the remarkable Henry Hazlitt, the best economic and finance journalist who ever lived? More importantly, can the book still teach us something about the world today, nearly 75 years after it was first published?

We can answer these questions with a resounding “Yes,” because both Hazlitt and his most famous work remain absolutely relevant today. Economics in One Lesson is an astonishing book, made more astonishing by its abject clarity and unrivaled readability. Read it and you will understand more economics than 99% of the American population, which is both a testament to Hazlitt’s skill and an indictment of our schools!

Hazlitt is a master at simplifying and distilling economic theory and concepts, turning them into simple digestible bites, and illustrating them with an ease and plainspoken style that belie his huge intellect. This is a book without pretense or ego, showing an economy of prose which brings to mind Strunk and White’s famous dictum in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words”! Brevity is a big part of its charm, beginning with the promise of the title. Who can resist learning economics from a single slim volume, instead of boring class lectures or a big heavy textbook? Who can ignore such a bold title, with its promise of demystifying a dry academic subject in just a few hours?

Economics in One Lesson is certainly Hazlitt’s most famous and best selling text, but it represents only a small part of an much larger body of work. He wrote or edited 17 books, on topics ranging from inflation, the Bretton Woods agreement (he opposed it), willpower and goal setting, literary criticism, constitutionalism (he preferred parliamentary government), welfare statism and poverty, the philosophy of the Stoics, and even ethics and morality. 

Even today his 1964 book on the latter topic, The Foundations of Morality, demands consideration by Rothbardian libertarians who make the normative case for laissez faire capitalism. Hazlitt’s rule utilitarianism, mirroring that of Ludwig von Mises’s, is not the “greatest good for the greatest number” construct of Bentham or Mill. Instead it is rooted in social cooperation (read: “markets”) and the need for general rules of conduct. Like Mises, Hazlitt argues for a causal analysis of what rules tend toward “desirable rather than undesirable social results.” While Hazlitt respects the pedigree of natural law thinkers like Aquinas, he finds it a “nebulous concept” in a world of innumerable religions and ethical systems with no single arbiter of justice.  

Yet all of this book writing took place apart from his various day jobs as a journalist, and Hazlitt wrote for the biggest and best outlets of his day. His resume is staggering. Over five decades, from 1913 until 1969, it included stints at The Wall Street Journal, New York Evening Post, New York Evening Mail, New York Herald, The Sun, The Nation, H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Freeman. He was particularly well known for his book reviews at the Times, and for his long-running “Business Tides” column at Newsweek. 

His great friend Bettina Bien Greaves recalls Hazlitt at age 70 remarking that he had written nearly every day from age 20! By his own estimate he wrote “10,000 editorials, articles, and columns; some 10,000,000 words!” It is hard to imagine a journalist as prolific in our digital era.

Some men are born, others like Hazlitt are self-made. The very best men help others succeed, and Hazlitt demonstrated his greatness as a benefactor and friend to Ludwig von Mises. After favorably reviewing Mises’s Socialism for the New York Times Book Review in 1938, he was stunned to pick up the phone not long after and hear, “This is Mises speaking.” In Hazlitt’s recollection it was like taking a call from John Stuart Mill!

Ultimately, Hazlitt was much more than simply a gifted writer and skilled expositor of economic concepts. He became a legendary figure, with an aristocratic bearing and stature which he earned rather than inherited. His dress was impeccable, his speech and manners unimpeachable. This was no accident, but rather a choice by a man who described manners as “minor morals” which ought to “rest on the same principles as do morals or ethics—sympathy, kindness, consideration of others.” All governance, as Hazlitt understood it, starts internally and moves outward from there. His personal comportment stood as a testament to how each of us can help build a (truly) liberal civil society.

Henry Hazlitt made it look easy.

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