Henry Hazlitt, 1894-1993

By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

If you want to know where American free-marketeers learned economics, take a look at Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. A brilliant and pithy work first published in 1946, it is the best introduction to the economic way of thinking, and the most popular economics text ever written. Unlike any book by Keynes or Marx, college students all across America (and the world) still use it and learn from it.

Mr. Hazlitt, born on November 28, 1894, died on July 8 at the age of 98. In his final years, he expressed surprise that this book had become his most enduring contribution. He wrote it to expose the popular fallacies of its day. He did not know that those fallacies would be government policy for the next 50 years.

Hazlitt wanted to be remembered for his other contributions. His lifetime bibliography (Mises Institute, 1993) has more than 6, 000 entries.

As a teenager, Hazlitt started his career at the Wall Street Journal, and he wrote his first book, Thinking as a Science, at the age of 21. A few years later, his book-length attack on psychoanalysis was published at the height of Freud’s popularity in America.

By the late 1920s, Hazlitt’s reputation as a writer and thinker had grown, thanks also to his reviews and essays in the New York Sun. Editors of The Nation noticed and hired him as literary editor. He wrote about literature as a springboard to his own rich observations on philosophy, culture, history, economics, and politics. He even penned an early refutation of literary deconstructionism called The Anatomy of Criticism (1933).

Politically, Hazlitt never changed much during his long life, as his first signed article in The Nation (“Old-time Government Control”) shows. And when the Great Depression hit, and the New Deal brought state planning to national economic life, Hazlitt used his literary fame and post at The Nation to attack Roosevelt’s regimentation. Unfortunately, the magazine shifted to a pro-New-Deal position, and his firm adherence to principle led to his ouster. (See p. 2.)

H.L. Mencken had also noticed his talent (“one of the few economists in human history who could really write,” Mencken said), and made him his successor at the American Mercury, a position Hazlitt held for nearly two years until he decided to go back into newspaper work.

In those days, even the New York Times was not so partisan that it would keep out a great writer. So the paper hired Hazlitt to write editorials, which he did from 1934 to 1946. He also met Ludwig von Mises, whose work Hazlitt had admired. Hazlitt and Mises became fast friends, and Mises thrilled to Hazlitt’s blasts against price controls, union power, government spending, inflationary monetary policies, and regulation. Most important, he took on Keynes’s plans to reconstruct the monetary system after the war, and his prediction of world-wide inflation came true.

The Times, however, was moving to the Left, and endorsed the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Again, Hazlitt was squeezed out. But he landed a job with Newsweek magazine, and his weekly “Business Tides” column was enduringly popular.

While at Newsweek, Hazlitt wrote Economics in One Lesson, which has sold more than one million copies and is available in ten languages. Hazlitt argued that government intervention focuses on the consequences that are seen, and ignores those that are not. These include wealth not created and even destroyed by regulation, inflation, and taxation.