The Foundation for Economic Education • 1997 • 143 pages • $14.95 paperback
When Henry Hazlitt died in 1993 at the age of 98, advocates of liberty lost one of their greatest spokesmen. Rare indeed is the individual who combines a deep, penetrating mind, clear writing, and the will to keep battling against the tide for what he knows to be true. Henry Hazlitt was that rare individual. A vigorous opponent of statism in all its many forms, he left a wealth of brilliant books and essays to those of us who carry on the fight to preserve what freedom remains to us and eventually recover that which has been taken away.
A project that Hazlitt never completed was a book he intended to call Is Politics Insoluble? He outlined the book in 1978, and when he donated his library to the Foundation for Economic Education in 1984, Hazlitt wrote that the book was half finished. Felix Livingston has now collected the essays that Hazlitt intended to use as the book’s framework and provided an excellent introduction that ties together the principal themes of the work. Even though the essays, written between 1968 and 1980, have all appeared before (many in these pages), we are fortunate to have them together in a book that will help to keep attention focused on the thought of a truly great man.
The ten essays that comprise Is Politics Insoluble? revolve around a single question: What is the role of the state? Issues that spin off from this central question include: What is the harm of excessive government? How do libertarians best make their case for a limited state? Can there really be such a thing as “political science”? How strong were John Stuart Mill’s numerous exceptions to the laissez-faire principle? How sound was Herbert Spencer’s case for strict adherence to laissez faire? The era of big government is still very much upon us, but if enough people read and absorb what Hazlitt has to say in these essays, we might someday be able to accurately say that the era of big government is over.
Each of the essays in Is Politics Insoluble? is excellent, but here I can only mention a few.
In the first essay, “Is Politics Insoluble?,” Hazlitt asks whether it is conceivable that we could ever come to agreement on the proper role of government in the way that we have settled answers on many questions in the physical sciences. He is doubtful. Politics is a field in which everyone thinks his own opinions are perfectly reasonable, but very few comprehend the long-run consequences of adhering to various politico-economic doctrines. Most importantly, they fail to see that interventions “tend to be indefinitely expanded.” As long as most people remain ignorant of sound economic thinking (and Hazlitt’s own Economics in One Lesson remains the best antidote for economic ignorance), we will be plagued with widespread support for harmful and authoritarian laws.
The third essay, “The Case for the Minimalist State,” was written in response to Robert Nozick’s 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The key part of this essay is Hazlitt’s criticism of Nozick’s reliance on natural law in making the case for a minimal state. Hazlitt argues that the philosophical case is stronger if we adopt a rule-utilitarian framework instead. His essay does not settle the matter, but neither can it be dismissed lightly. It seems to the reviewer that this point is worthy of a good deal more attention.
Another particularly strong essay is “The Task Confronting Libertarians.” Hazlitt laments the fact that relatively few business leaders in the United States are willing to stand up for free markets, either by attacking government intervention themselves or at least by funding the various organizations that are active in doing so. A big part of our task is to convince those who ought to be our allies that our fight is their fight and they should provide more assistance.
Is Politics Insoluble? is chock full of vintage Hazlitt wisdom, a good read for veteran libertarians, newcomers, and anyone else who has an interest in political economy.