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Henry Hazlitt on the Bailout

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    $14  $12 Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson needs to read this book.    

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson needs to change his reading list. Instead of reading the balance sheets and income statements of the failing banking industry, he needs to read Henry Hazlitt’s classic book Economics in One Lesson. It will cost Paulson far less than the $700 billion that he is spending on the bailout, and he might just learn a little economics in the process.

Hazlitt delivers his "one lesson" in chapter 1, and proceeds to spend the rest of the book giving examples. His lesson, based on the work of Frédéric Bastiat, is that "the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

For example, in chapter 2, Hazlitt delivers the well-known "broken window fallacy" in which a hoodlum breaks a shopkeeper’s window with a rock. The common folk see it as a tragedy, but an astute Washington bureaucrat could argue that it creates new jobs for glaziers. As Hazlitt points out, though, any resources that the shopkeeper spends on the new window would have been used elsewhere, perhaps for a new suit. So while the glazier gets new business, the tailor loses the same amount of business. There is no net benefit; in fact there is a net loss. Absent the hoodlum, the shopkeeper would have had both a window and a new suit; given the hoodlum, the shopkeeper has a window but no suit. Even though the damage was to the window, it is the suit that is lost to the shopkeeper and, hence, to society.

  $25 Read by Jeff Riggenbach      

In chapter 6, entitled "Credit Diverts Production," Hazlitt discusses government lending policies, such as additional credit to farmers or business owners. However, he points out, the recipients of such programs are rarely the more-productive farmers and business owners. After all, the more-productive people are able to borrow their money from private lenders. It is only the less-productive individuals and firms, unable to get funds on the free market, that must turn to government.

For example, suppose that there is a farm for sale. A private lender would normally be willing to lend money to farmer A who has proven his abilities in the past, rather than to farmer B, who has demonstrated a lower level of productivity than has A. However, because government taxes citizens or borrows money itself in capital markets, private lenders have fewer funds available to lend to A. Instead, government lends the money to B on the grounds that B is underprivileged, in need of a hand, or some other politically based argument. The more productive borrower, A, loses out on the scarce land while the less productive borrower, B, gains the resources. Because the less-productive individual acquires the scarce resource, there will be less total production, and the entire society is worse off.

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October 16, 2008

Scott A. Kjar teaches economics at Baldwin-Wallace College.