All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1965

The Effort of Every Man

“No ordinary misfortune, no or­dinary misgovernment will do so much to make a nation wretched as the constant progress of phys­ical knowledge and the constant effort of every man to better him­self will do to make a nation pros­perous. It has often been found that profuse expenditure, heavy taxation, absurd commercial re­strictions, corrupt tribunals, dis­astrous wars, seditions, persecu­tions, conflagrations, inundations, have not been able to destroy capi­tal as fast as the exertions of pri­vate citizens have been able to create it.”

So, in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay in the chapter of his famous History of England de­scribing the state of the country in 1685.

It could easily be proved, he went on, that the national wealth of England had been almost un­interruptedly increasing for at least the six preceding centuries. For example, “in spite of malad­ministration, of extravagance, of public bankruptcy, of two costly and unsuccessful wars, of the pes­tilence and of the fire, it was greater on the day of the death of Charles the Second than on the day of his Restoration.” And this economic progress had been pro­ceeding during the nineteenth cen­tury with “accelerated velocity.”

Claiming the Credit

Macaulay was calling attention to a fact of the first importance, but one that is constantly over­looked. It is systematically ignored today by nearly all governments, who are, at least by implication, constantly claiming for their own policies all the credit for all the economic improvement during their term of office.

This has been especially true since gross-national-product sta­tistics have been compiled. Spokes­men for the Truman Administra­tion boasted that the GNP in­creased from $211 billion in 1944 to $347 billion in 1952. Spokesmen for President Eisenhower pointed to the increase to $503 billion in 1960; spokesmen for President Kennedy to the increase to $584 billion in 1963; and spokesmen for President Johnson to the increase to $670 billion in 1965. But it re­mains to be determined to what extent these increases (even after allowance is made for a constant rise of dollar prices) were because or in spite of the government poli­cies followed.

Most European governments boast an even faster “economic growth,” since the end of World War II, in their countries than in our own. But by far the greatest part of the credit for this growth must be given to the efforts of private citizens of these countries to improve their own condition. If the governments also deserve some credit, it is chiefly because they did not put too many restrictions and deterrents in the way.

Usual and Expected

The great fact that Macaulay emphasized, “the constant effort of every man to better himself,” is important not only as it affects the question of who or what should receive the main credit for eco­nomic progress. It is the tremen­dously reassuring fact that all of us would do well to keep in mind as we read our daily newspapers. Too many of us become dis­heartened anew every morning as we read the sorry record of ac­cidents, divorces, quarrels, un­employment, diseases, deaths, bur­glaries, muggings, murders, riots, looting, racial violence, strikes, fires, revolts, revolutions, and war, as well as droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. We forget that the newspapers print the “news,” and that the news means the unusual and unexpected.

We do not pick up our news­paper and read such items as “Strange case of virtue in the Bronx” or “More than 70 million people all over the United States went to their jobs yesterday morn­ing, working in factories, offices, and on farms till late afternoon. The police did not interfere.” We do not read such items because they are the usual and the ex­pected.

The normal thing, in short, is not merely that most people are leading peaceable lives, but that most people are daily working and producing. Many are producing just enough to meet their current living expenses, but others are able to save something—in brief, to accumulate the capital, the money to create the new tools and equipment, that will make not only themselves but later genera­tions constantly more produc­tive.

Copyright Newsweek, Inc., September 27, 1965, and Henry Hazlitt.

  • Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. See his complete bibliography. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.