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Wednesday, November 1, 1995

Henry Hazlitt: A Giant of Liberty

Hazlitt Possessed Rare Courage and Insight

Last November 28th the occasion of Henry Hazlitt’s 100th birthday was celebrated at a testimonial conference and dinner in New York City. Among those presenting tributes to Hazlitt were Lawrence Kudlow, Joseph Sobran, Llewellyn Rockwell, Bettina Bien Greaves, and yours truly.

Why all the ongoing applause?

For good reason: Hazlitt possessed rare courage and insight. And, as Llewellyn Rockwell points out in this volume, through Hazlitt many an American conservative learned free-market economics at a time when statism was rampant in the land.

In 1946, for example, Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson was published. Still available, it’s gone through many editions here and overseas, selling around a million copies. In 1959 Hazlitt came out with The Failure of the “New Economics.” In this book, hailed by the Wall Street Journal as a landmark work, Hazlitt delivered a devastating line-by-line refutation of the twentieth-century bible of liberal economics, John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936).

There are many other enduring Hazlitt contributions, as the bulk of this book, a lifetime bibliography of more than 6,000 entries, makes clear. The bibliography, compiled by Jeffrey Tucker, includes citations of a novel, works on literary criticism, treatises on economics and moral philosophy, several edited volumes, some 16 other books and many chapters in books, plus articles, commentaries, and reviews. The books were annotated by Murray Rothbard. Hazlitt himself estimated he had put out ten million words and his collected works would run to 150 volumes.

What sparked this outpouring? Hazlitt said he was initially inspired by the writing of British economist Philip Wicksteed and later by the work of philosopher Herbert Spencer. But his greatest inspiration sprang from his close friendship with Ludwig von Mises, a friendship starting with his review of the English translation of Mises’ Socialism in the New York Times in 1938. Philosophically Hazlitt and Mises were as one on liberty and its implications for laissez-faire public policy.

Hazlitt’s 1944 review in the New York Times of The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek, a student of Mises, apparently led the Reader’s Digest to publish a condensed version that helped catapult the book to the bestseller list and later Hayek himself to Nobel Laureate fame.

Hazlitt wrote for The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, American Mercury, National Review, The Freeman, Newsweek, among others. Throughout he maintained his editorial integrity and principled defense of a free society. He also managed to write pungently and clearly, winning an accolade from H. L. Mencken that Hazlitt was “one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”

Hazlitt’s classic “One Lesson” pinpoints the free-lunch fallacy of governments which spend and spend to create jobs and public support while forgetting that this spending unavoidably denies commensurate spending by taxpayers which would also create jobs and private support—but on a far sounder basis. That basis is seen in his book attacking the Marshall Plan in 1947, Will Dollars Save the World? Hazlitt saw the plan as a big rathole, an international government-to- government welfare scheme. The subsequent history of foreign aid by the U.S. World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others shows how right he was. “Aid” to Africa, for example, has helped stultify a whole continent and its forlorn people for 40 years.

Similarly his books The Foundations of Morality and Man vs. the Welfare State arrived decades before Charles Murray’s Losing Ground. In them Hazlitt demonstrated that welfare defies human nature, that it is based on squishy ethics, that it promotes disincentives, that for its recipients it is a future-foreclosing trap, that it deters biological fathers from supporting their own families—that, in sum, it winds up promoting the very thing it seeks to discourage.

So once again Henry Hazlitt proved right thinking provides right answers. “A Giant of Liberty” is an apt eulogy of Henry Hazlitt. As Hamlet said of his father, we shall not look upon his like again. []

Dr. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and the Distinguished Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy Emeritus at Campbell University in North Carolina.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.