All Commentary
Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Times Call for Courage

For truth telling and hard work.

Image Credit: Jeremy Perkins - Unsplash

Why are we drifting deeper and deeper into socialism and the dark night of totalitarianism? Why have those of us who believe in human liberty been so ineffective?

I am going to give what is no doubt a terribly oversimplified answer to that question. In the first place, we are almost hopelessly outnumbered. Our voices are simply drowned out in the general tumult and clamor. But there is another reason. And this is hard to say, above all to an audience of this sort, which contains some of the most brilliant writers and minds in the fields of economics, of jurisprudence, of politics, not only of this age but of any age. But the hard thing must be said that, collectively, we just haven’t been good enough. We haven’t convinced the majority. Is this because the majority just won’t listen to reason? I am enough of an optimist, and I have enough faith in human nature, to believe that people will listen to reason if they are convinced that it is reason. Somewhere, there must be some missing argument, something that we haven’t seen clearly enough, or said clearly enough, or, perhaps, just not said often enough.

A minority is in a very awkward position. The individuals in it can’t afford to be just as good as the individuals in the majority. If they hope to convert the majority they have to be much better; and the smaller the minority, the better they have to be. They have to think better. They have to know more. They have to write better. They have to have better controversial manners. Above all, they have to have far more courage. And they have to be infinitely patient.

When I look back on my own career, I can find plenty of reasons for discouragement, personal discouragement. I have not lacked industry. I have written a dozen books. For most of 50 years, from the age of 20, I have been writing practically every weekday: news items, editorials, columns, articles. I figure I must have written in total some 10,000 editorials, articles, and columns; some 10,000,000 words! And in print! The verbal equivalent of about 150 average-length books!

And yet, what have I accomplished? I will confess in the confidence of these four walls that I have sometimes repeated myself. In fact, there may be some people unkind enough to say I haven’t been saying anything new for fifty years! And in a sense they would be right. I have been preaching essentially the same thing. I’ve been preaching liberty as against coercion; I’ve been preaching capitalism as against socialism; and I’ve been preaching this doctrine in every form and with any excuse. And yet the world is enormously more socialized than when I began.

There is a character in Sterne or Smollett — was it Uncle Toby? Anyway, he used to get angry at politics, and every year found himself getting angrier and angrier and politics getting no better. Well, every year I find myself getting angrier and angrier and politics getting worse and worse.

But I don’t know that I ought to brag about my own ineffectiveness, because I’m in very good company. Eugene Lyons has been devoting his life to writing brilliantly and persistently against Communism. He now even has the tremendous circulation of the Reader’s Digest behind him. And yet, at the end of all these years that he has been writing, Communism is stronger and covers enormously more territory than when he started. And Max Eastman has been at this longer than any of the rest of us, and he’s been writing a poetic and powerful prose and throwing his tremendous eloquence into the cause, and yet he’s been just as ineffective as the rest of us, so far as political consequences are concerned.

Yet, in spite of this, I am hopeful. After all, I’m still in good health, I’m still free to write, I’m still free to write unpopular opinions, and I’m keeping at it. And so are many of you. So I bring you this message: Be of good heart: be of good spirit. If the battle is not yet won, it is not yet lost either.

I suppose most of you in this room have read that powerful book, George Orwell’s 1984. On the surface it is a profoundly depressing novel, but I was surprised to find myself strangely encouraged by it. I finally decided that this encouragement arose from one of the final scenes in it. The hero, Winston Smith, is presented as a rather ordinary man, an intelligent but not a brilliant man, and certainly not a courageous one. Winston Smith has been keeping a secret diary, in which he wrote: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two and two makes four.” Now this diary has been discovered by the Party. O’Brien, his inquisitor, is asking him questions. Winston Smith is strapped to a board or a wheel, in such a way that O’Brien, by merely moving a lever, can inflict any amount of excruciating pain upon him (and explains to him just how much pain he can inflict upon him and just how easy it would be to break Smith’s backbone). O’Brien first inflicts a certain amount of not quite intolerable pain on Winston Smith. Then he holds up the four fingers of his left hand, and says, “How many fingers am I holding up? Winston knows that the required answer is five. That’s the Party answer. But Winston can’t say anything else but four. So O’Brien moves the lever again, and inflicts still more agonizing pain upon him, and says, “Think again. How many fingers am I holding up?” Winston Smith says, “Four. Four. Four fingers.” Well, he finally capitulates, as you know, but not until he has put up a magnificent battle.

None of us is yet on the torture rack; we are not yet in jail; we’re getting various harassments and annoyances, but what we mainly risk is merely our popularity, the danger that we will be called nasty names. So, before we are in the position of Winston Smith, we can surely have enough courage to keep saying that two plus two equals four.

This is the duty that is laid upon us. We have a duty to speak even more clearly and courageously, to work harder, and to keep fighting this battle while the strength is still in us. But I can’t do better than to read the words of the great economist, the great thinker, the great writer, who honors me more than I can say by his presence here tonight, Ludwig von Mises. This is what he wrote in the final paragraph of his great book on socialism 40 years ago:

“Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.”

Those words — uncannily prophetic words — were written in the early 1920s. Well, I haven’t any new message, any better message than that.

Even those of us who have reached and passed our 70th birthdays cannot afford to rest on our oars and spend the rest of our lives dozing in the Florida sun. The times call for courage. The times call for hard work. But if the demands are high, it is because the stakes are even higher. They are nothing less than the future of human liberty, which means the future of civilization.

This piece was excerpted from Henry Hazlitt’s remarks at his 70th birthday celebration on November 29, 1964.


  • 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.