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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Intellectual Journey of Henry Hazlitt

He Never Yielded to the Collective Wisdom of a Collectivist Age

Years ago, I was looking through a box of artifacts from the life of Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993) and came across some of his old Big Chief tablets, the sort that people once used in elementary school. The handwriting was youthful, perhaps that of a fifth grader, and the pencil marks thick, as if from a child’s writing tool.

So I was astonished to find, in young Henry’s hand, extensive notes on Baruch Spinoza’s treatise on ethics. And that was only the beginning. There were piles of these tablets, with notes on William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, David Hume, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other great thinkers.

Henry was intellectually fearless, even from a young age.

To call Hazlitt precocious would be an understatement. A better description is that he was intellectually fearless, even from a young age. He had put together a rigorous reading program, apart from anything his teachers were asking of him. His desire for learning and education was insatiable. These early years laid the foundation for a lifetime of intellectual output that would cover economics, ethics, politics, history, religion, and psychology.

Fans of his most famous book, Economics in One Lesson, may not know that Hazlitt also wrote another 20 books and tens of thousands of articles, published in every important venue of the 20th century. His literary legacy is awe inspiring and a reflection of his own courageous spirit. There was no idea that Hazlitt was unwilling to explore in defense of human freedom, so it makes sense that he made the Foundation for Economic Education his home.

A Look Back

When he was 91 years old, Hazlitt sat down to write his memoirs. He never completed them, but the manuscript he left, recently published by FEE, is still a fascinating document. It chronicles his remarkable career, from New York journalist, to literary critic at the Nation, to H.L. Mencken’s successor at the American Mercury, to New York Times editorial writer, to close collaborator with Leonard Read at FEE and author of Economics in One Lesson (a book published the same year as FEE’s founding).

Those memoirs provide a clue about the origin of his lifelong love of liberty.

He tells of putting his career on hold to enlist during the “Great War” in 1917, for he was 19 years old and destined to be drafted in any case. By agreement, he was paid $30 a month (or $557 in today’s prices) for his service.

But instead of being sent to the front, he was sent to a flight-training school at Ellington Field in Houston. Here’s the unlikely story of how he was promoted to student battalion sergeant major. He slept in one day and missed roll call. He woke and didn’t have anything to do, so he decided to use his time to master the art of bed making, “tightening each sheet like a drum-top.”

After the others came back, they made their beds hastily, whereas Henry’s bed was already immaculate.

The commander said, “That’s a well-made bed. That’s the way I’d like to see all the beds made.”

At that moment, Henry got his promotion and was allowed to boss people around. Oh, the joy! Hazlitt writes that he was able to say, “Battalion commanders, take your battalions and march them to the parade grounds for parade!”

Here he saw the truth about government up close. The point of the base was to train for flight. Remember, this was 1917, and the airplane industry was in its infancy. The US government didn’t want to use France’s model for the engine, for reasons of patriotism. So it used Curtiss planes with a government-created Liberty Motor. But the motor was too heavy for the frame, resulting in massive casualties and a huge shortage of planes. As a result, Hazlitt wrote, “My stay at Ellington Field was mainly marked by frustration and boredom. Our country had been dragged into a war for which it was unprepared, especially in the air; and our leaders in that branch seemed determined to do all the wrong things.”

Back to New York

Peace came and everyone returned to normal life. Hazlitt was back in New York writing for daily newspapers and working his way toward real intellectual achievement. But surely this wartime experience left a mark on him. His general spirit toward politics might be described as “old liberal,” meaning that he favored freedom of the individual in religion, speech, civic life, and economics.

Hazlitt resisted every bankrupt intellectual trend of his time.

Hazlitt’s outlook on economics had been shaped by reading the classical economists from Adam Smith to David Ricardo to contemporaries such as Benjamin Anderson (who is sometimes described as proto-Austrian). Although he had been a financial reporter on Wall Street, when Hazlitt later wrote for the Nation beginning in 1930, his main beat was literary criticism, not economics. Based on his experience to that point, he had no reason to believe that his economic views were fundamentally at odds with those of his fellow liberals.

All of that changed with the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt used populist language to sell his program, but on close examination, Hazlitt could see that something more insidious was going on. The New Deal was a central planning program that privileged large corporations and unions at the expense of market competition — an arrangement that was fundamentally antithetical to Hazlitt’s beliefs. Liberals in those days were forced to choose between supporting the New Deal (as an experiment in socialist-style half measures) or returning to their traditional support for market economics.

Hazlitt used his position to argue the case against the New Deal — and, as part of that case, to explain that the economic crisis was caused not by the free market but by the government policies that created the boom-bust cycle. He asked the Nation’s readership to decide who was right. Which direction the publication would take became obvious when Hazlitt left his position to succeed Mencken as the editor of the American Mercury.

Meeting Mises

When Hazlitt took the job as editorial writer at the New York Times in 1934, he found himself at the center of the nation’s political and intellectual life. He became a radio personality. He wrote one or two unsigned editorials per day, in addition to long feature articles in the weekly book review. It was here that Hazlitt discovered the work of Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economist who would become his intellectual mentor.

It was Hazlitt who boosted Mises’s prominence among English-speaking readers. When Mises immigrated to the United States in 1940, Hazlitt put him in touch with an academic publisher, resulting in a book series at Yale University that culminated in Mises’s great economic treatise, Human Action (which Hazlitt had a hand in editing). FEE made the treatise’s publication possible by purchasing and distributing much of the first print run.

FEE remained Hazlitt’s most treasured association.

Following the Second World War, Hazlitt again found himself in hot water with a publisher. The Times wanted to back John Maynard Keynes’s plan at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. Hazlitt warned that the plans for monetary reconstruction were unsustainable. Refusing to write what the publisher demanded, Hazlitt was shown the door.

After the Times

His first book after leaving the New York Times was Economics in One Lesson, published in 1946. It was an attempt to distill the most important lessons of economic science into a short and entertaining read. It ended up becoming the best-selling economics book of the second half of the 20th century. FEE was founded the same year, and the agenda for the future became clear: to educate widely about the meaning, the significance, and the moral and practical urgency of human freedom.

FEE became Hazlitt’s beloved intellectual home — something he had lacked his entire life. Whether he was writing for Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or publishing large books on economics and ethics, FEE remained Hazlitt’s most treasured association. And FEE was the center of his social circle, which included people like Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand.

These were remarkable times. The idea of liberty was an extreme minority position, often a seemingly hopeless cause. Why did Hazlitt persist? What drove him? I think back on those childhood notebooks with young Henry’s thoughts on the great literature he was reading as a preteen.

Hazlitt resisted every bankrupt intellectual trend of his time, never succumbing to the pressure to protect his career by yielding to the collective wisdom of a collectivist age.

He knew that in the long run, the love of liberty could never be extinguished in the human mind. He knew that trends could change. And he knew that freedom needed courageous, learned, and tireless voices in its defense.

Today we remember Hazlitt as one of those great voices — and one of the most heroic.

(Editor’s Note: Upon his death in 1993, Henry Hazlitt bequeathed his personal library to FEE, which we retain to this day.)