Henry Stuart Hazlitt was not trained as an economist, but his 1946 book, Economics in One Lesson, taught millions of people that putting government in charge of economic life has some serious negative consequences. College students across America used it then, as now, to learn the dynamics of sensible economic behavior. Hazlitt wrote the book to expose the fallacies of mid-20th century economics but he surely had no idea that those fallacies would become government policy for the rest of the century.
Background: Henry Stuart Hazlitt was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1894 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was a journalist, philosopher, literary critic and economist and is also considered one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century.
Henry was a multi-faceted individual and wanted to be known for his trialogue on literary criticism, two large treaties on moral philosophy and economics, several edited volumes, a novel and 16 other books as well as countless reviews, articles and commentaries. He believed that all his work would fill 150 volumes, which he estimated at 10 million words.
Hazlitt’s economic knowledge came from some of the great Austrian economists of the time like Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard and F.A.Hayek. His articles were published in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, the New York Times, Newsweek, The Freeman, the American Mercury and Century among others.
When Hazlitt reviewed Ludwig von Mises’s first book in English, socialism became the immediate topic of conversation around the country. When Hazlitt reviewed F.A.Hayek’s book Road to Serfdom, (Audio Version) Reader’s Digest published a condensed version and Hayek became famous almost overnight.
William James was one of Hazlitt’s early heroes so he wanted to pursue a career in psychology but his family’s financial situation put an end to that dream. After a year and a half of night school at City College Hazlitt had to find a way to make a steady living, and at the age of 20 he became a stenographer for the Wall Street Journal. He had already finished his book, Thinking as a Science, which was published in 1915 and then reprinted a year later. It was reissued in 1969 with a new introduction.
Hazlitt’s first book made a strong argument and it was done with virile energy. In 1916, he left theJournal to write editorials for the New York Evening Post and the New York Evening Mail. In 1922, his second book, The Way to Will Power was published. It was a defense against the poignant claims of Freudian psychoanalysis. By the late 1920s, Hazlitt’s reputation as a writer and thinker were well known, thanks to his weekly essays and reviews that appeared in the New York Sun from 1926 to 1929.
During those illustrious years Hazlitt met Bertrand Russell, considered the most brilliant person alive in those days. Russell was impressed with Hazlitt and his work and wanted Hazlitt to write his official biography. Hazlitt worked on the project for almost two years before Russell decided to do his own biography.
The editors of the leftist Nation magazine noticed Hazlitt’s work and hired him as the literary editor around that same time. The Nation wanted Hazlitt to write book reviews, as well as editorials about economic topics. He finished his 1933 book, The Anatomy of Criticism, while he wrote exceptional articles on culture, philosophy, economics, history and politics for the Nation.
As Hazlitt grew in experience he became more and more dubious of government intervention in the economy and that doubt led to outright opposition. He refused to give in to the pressure that some editors and publishers were exerting on him and as a consequence he was overlooked when several prestigious jobs became available. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a thorn in Hazlitt’s side and he made every effort to expose the negative economic repercussions that would manifest at some point in time if it became law. When the Nation shifted to a pro-Roosevelt view they fired Hazlitt.
The American Mercury was one publication that vehemently opposed the New Deal and hired Hazlitt as the new editor. H.L. Mencken, the founder of the publication, called Hazlitt “the only competent critic of the arts that I have heard of who was at the same time a competent economist, of practical as well as theoretical training, and he is one of the few economists in human history who can really write.” His first article, “The Fallacies of the N.R.A.,” was a focused attack on the American left and the Nation. He was editor of American Mercury for two years and then returned to newspaper work.
Henry worked for the New York Times from 1934 to 1946 and at the same time he met and became friends with Ludwig von Mises, who was thrilled with Hazlitt’s editorial attacks on government planning. Hazlitt wrote his bestseller, Economics in One Lesson, while working for Newsweek, and in 1959 he wrote The Failure of the New Economics. In the mid-1960s, he turned his attention to capitalism and wrote Foundations of Morality, which Hazlitt said was his finest achievement.
At Hazlitt’s 70th birthday party Ludwig von Mises stood behind the podium and said: “In this age of the great struggle in favor of freedom and the social system in which men can live as free men, you are our leader. You have indefatigably fought against the step-by-step advance of the powers anxious to destroy everything that human civilization has created over a long period of centuries…. You are the economic conscience of our country and of our nation.”