Hazlitt at 80: Rothbard's Tribute

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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.

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 Failure 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.

Reprinted
from Mises.org.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
president of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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