All Commentary
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Henry Hazlitt is a wonderful guide to economic thinking. Not many people know that he also wrote a manual for self mastery. 

In Economics in One Lesson, Hazlitt presented simple and memorable rules for applying economics to understanding how the world works. It would end up as one of the best-selling economics books of all time. It continues to be an invaluable teaching tool for anyone just discovering economic logic.

Twenty-four years earlier he had written a book nearly as compelling. It was popular at the time, but today hardly anyone knows about it. It too was influenced by economic thinking. This was the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, just as alcohol prohibition was imposed on the country, expansionary credit was shortening time horizons, and Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming the popular rage. The book was on psychology, a kind of self-help manual called The Way to Will Power (1922). This book did for the cause of personal freedom and self-mastery what his most famous book did for economics.

By willpower, Hazlitt means our intellectual and character-based capacity for achieving our aims. This requires syncing up our choices with our goals. It sounds easy until you consider how many people fail in this regard. We want to be thin and svelte but can’t lay off the buckets of ice cream or put the gym membership to use. Think of how many people want to be rich but can’t get out of bed on time. Look at what happens to our New Year’s resolutions only a few weeks after we make them. We have big aims but something goes wrong on the way to achieving them.

Hazlitt examined why this happens and what to do about it. He wrote the book while working as a financial journalist in New York, so the entire intellectual framework was heavily influenced by the economics literature he was reading. He was reading about issues like opportunity cost, long-term and short-term choices on the margin, and demonstrated preference. It must have occurred to him at some point that economics is a great way to understand the human mind and to better grasp the path toward self-mastery.

He begins his book with the dramatic claim that there is no will independent of desire. Desire is the driving force of our choices. The key to obtaining power over the will, then, is to master the desire. Our desires need to be cultivated and shaped with intelligence and deliberation so that we can make choices consistent with our goals. 

In order to do this, we need to recognize a crucially important feature of all action: no desire in this world can be obtained save the sacrifice of some other desires. Desire leads to choice and every choice has a cost. The cost is that which you forgo in the course of taking the steps necessary to achieve your goal. If you spend your evening checking Twitter notifications rather than studying, the cost of your choice could be a low grade.

In our minds, we rank our preferences on a value scale. What we are doing right now ranks at the top, and the cost of our preference is the next-highest preference on our scale. Hazlitt points out that gaining consciousness of this hard reality—that every choice involves a trade-off—is the beginning of the cognitive end of will-power. We need to know what we are giving up in order to make wise choices.

“The price of staying out late at night,” he writes, “is sleep, health, efficiency at business, money, and self-improvement. That is, these are the things that the man must pay, lose, sacrifice, in order that he may stay out late at night. Conversely, the price of sleep, health, efficiency at business, money, self-improvement, is the pleasure of staying out late at night that one gives up.”

There is a second dimension that involves time. Most of our goals in life are connected to something remote in time. We want to read the classics, travel the world, obtain professional success, finish school. But our goals are constantly dethroned by shorter-term desires. Getting thin, for example, is a goal months out into the future. Eating a bucket of ice cream allows right-now satisfaction. The action and the goal are incompatible in every discrete unit of time.

Willpower involves coordinating our short-term actions with our long-term goals. This always involves a time trade-off: sacrificing now for what might be obtained later. This is part of the price, not just the immediate opportunity costs of your choice, but later ones as well.

Having presented the basic model, Hazlitt proceeds to explain a series of tips and tricks for obtaining better control over our lives. For example, he advises us that goals formed in the midst of regret rarely last. It is easy to desire future sobriety in the midst of a hangover or to long to be thin once you’ve finished a huge meal.

It is easier to swear to change once faced with the cost of your failure to change. The trick is to make actual change right now and not regret past failings.

He further advises us not to make vast numbers of resolutions. Make far fewer, and never out of disgust or passion. Resolutions should be realizable and rational, made with careful thought. Never forget that obtaining goals involves giving up easier paths and instead choosing the more difficult route.

Consider the price of all your ambitions, and never make the price too high. The price of studying is giving up a night of partying. The price of professional accomplishment might be to go easy on the drink or to forgo Netflix gawking. These are reasonable sacrifices. The price must be payable, else the ambition dies.

Hazlitt examines how our habits are so formative of our self-mastery. We all have habits that save us time and resources: how we tie our shoes, how we shave, how we put on our clothes. Work too can become a habit in the best way, but only through unrelenting repetition.

“Forming a new habit,” he writes, “is like forging for yourself a new path in the woods, through stubborn underbrush and prickly thorns, while all the while it is possible for you to take the well-worn, hard-trodden, pleasant path that already exists. But you can reflect that every time you travel through the new path you are going to tramp down more shrubbery and clear more entanglements from the way.”

This requires concentration, a learned skill, something you have to practice to feel and feel in order for it to become habitual. We need a program of work for daily achievement, and we must stick to it no matter what. It becomes easier once our minds and bodies come to expect it. 

In passing, Hazlitt offers a wonderful critique of what was then (and remains) pop psychology. The popular teachings of psychoanalysis run completely contrary to self-control and self-mastery, he wrote. This popular myth imagines us all to be hopelessly victimized by our subconscious, which is supposed to operate as a kind of puppet master over our will. It only becomes true if we believe it is true, writes Hazlitt.

The reality, says Hazlitt, is that we have more mental resources than we know. We limit ourselves based on our bad habits. There are such things as “second winds” and and “third winds.” We just have to push to release them.

Hazlitt ends his book with two outstanding points.

First, learn to fall in love with your work. This is how geniuses and great artists do amazing things with their live. They come to treat work as play. For example, they never worry about working too much or being too dedicated to their vocations. Distraction, not focus, is the enemy of willpower.

Second, he warns that we can never bypass the need for moral courage. This begins in the life of the mind.

“One must have the courage to go where the mind leads,” he writes, “no matter how startling the conclusion, how shattering, how much it may hurt oneself or a particular class, no matter how unfashionable or how obnoxious it may at first seem. This may require the courage to stand against the whole world. Great is the man who has that courage, for he indeed has achieved will power.”

Hazlitt’s literary legacy is all of a piece, and this book is an important and overlooked part of it. To develop discipline over habits, the moral courage to carry out our convictions, and the capacity to give up temporary pleasures in order to embrace the discrete steps that lead to greatness—these are all parts of what he calls willpower. This really is another way of celebrating the ways in which a free people keep their freedom or forget a new one once it has been lost.