The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt

HENRY Hazlitt was one of American history’s most prolific public intellectuals. According to Lew Rockwell, he “was familiar with the work of every important thinker in nearly every field,” and “wrote in every important public forum of his day.” His published work as a journalist, literary critic, philosopher, and economist ran to roughly 10 million words before his death in 1993, including perhaps the most popular economics book ever written—Economics in One Lesson. In that vast output, perhaps Hazlitt’s most important contribution was his consistent defense of the central importance of liberty in American life, even though it lost him more than one job.

At a time where real commitment to liberty is very scarce, Americans need to remember his wisdom. Liberty is the essential basis, the sine qua non, of morality. Morality can only exist in a free society, it can exist to the extent freedom exists.

“Freedom to” is a guarantee that no one, including the government, will be allowed to interfere with one’s freedom. The future of human liberty … means the future of civilization. True adherents of liberty…[believe] in limited government, in the maximization of liberty for the individual and the minimization of the coercion to the lowest point compatible with law and order … we believe in free trade, free markets, free enterprise, private property.

The “private sector” of the economy is, in fact, the voluntary sector … the “public sector” is, in fact, the coercive sector. Capitalism, the system of private property and free markets, is not only a system of freedom and of natural justice—which tends … to distribute rewards in accordance with production—but it is a great cooperative and creative system that has produced … affluence that our ancestors did not dare dream of.

Government can’t give anything without depriving us of something else. Only if the modern state can be held within a strictly limited agenda … can it be prevented from regimenting, conquering, and ultimately devouring the society which gave it birth.

Liberty is so precious an end in itself that Lord Acton was moved to declare that it is “not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Yet though liberty is beyond doubt an end in itself, it is also of the highest value … as a means to most of our other ends.

We can pursue not only our economic but our intellectual and spiritual goals only if we are free to do so. Moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another … include wrongful interference with each other’s freedom.

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves. Many of today’s most eloquent in their arguments for liberty in fact preach philosophies that would destroy … economic liberty. Our intelligentsia….misprize economic liberty because … they lack the knowledge or understanding to recognize that when economic liberties are abridged or destroyed, all other liberties are abridged or destroyed with them.

Liberty is a whole, and to deny economic liberty is finally to destroy all liberty. I’ve been preaching liberty against coercion; I’ve been preaching this doctrine in every form without any excuse, and yet the world is more socialized than when I began.

The ideas which now pass for brilliant innovations and advances are in fact mere revivals of ancient errors, and a further proof of the dictum that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.

There is a passion built into a very large number of men to rule over others. In established democracies this takes the form of candidates for office determined to outbid their rivals in promising handouts or other favors to pressure groups in their districts at the expense of some unnamed minority.

The mounting burden of taxation not only undermines individual incentives to increased work and earnings, but in a score of ways discourages capital accumulation and distorts, unbalances, and shrinks production. Total real wealth and income is made smaller than it would otherwise be.

On net balance there is more poverty rather than less. The “conquest of poverty” is a product of the capitalist system which protected private property. [Forgotten are] the ones who are always called upon to stanch the politician’s bleeding heart by paying for his vicarious generosity.

The first requisite of a sound monetary system is that it put the least possible power over the quantity or quality of money in the hands of the politicians. The superior freedom of the capitalist system, its superior justice, and its superior productivity are not three superiorities, but one.

The justice follows from the freedom and the productivity follows from the freedom and the justice. 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 that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Henry Hazlitt recognized liberty as the only moral system and economic liberty, or capitalism, as the only means of organizing society that can benefit all. And he defended that position powerfully against many attacks.

As Ludwig von Mises described him, “in this age of great struggle in favor of freedom and the social system in which men can live as free men, you … are the economic conscience of our country.”

During his life, Hazlitt saw America taking the opposite course, with ever more resources forcibly taken from some for whatever and whomever the government decides. Now, much farther down that path, his understanding is even more important.

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