David R. Henderson  

More Appreciation of Hazlitt

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In his excellent post this morning on Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson, Bryan Caplan, in my opinion, slightly understated the case for Hazlitt. I agree with everything Bryan said, but he gives the impression that Hazlitt's treatment is simplistic. It sometimes is, but it mainly isn't. In other words, although Hazlitt leaves out some "ifs," to use Brad DeLong's formulation, he doesn't leave out many.

Here's a paragraph from my November 2004 review of Economics in One Lesson:

Although professional economists might be tempted to dismiss a book that claims to teach economics in one lesson, the fact is that few professional economists have ever read Hazlitt's book. More's the pity. Even some professional economists who pick it up might, I suspect, dismiss it as obvious and unsubtle. But what it really is is obvious and subtle--obvious because Hazlitt makes things so clear; subtle because his clarity helps him untangle otherwise complicated issues, such as the one discussed in the previous paragraph. As the famed H. L. Mencken wrote about Hazlitt on the book's jacket, "He is one of the few economists in human history who could really write." Indeed, were 100 professional economists to stop writing their abstract economics articles and, instead, start writing as clearly as Hazlitt on the same subjects he wrote on, the world would become dramatically more informed about economics, and well could become freer as a result. I'd settle for ten such economists.

Moreover, on top of that, Hazlitt explains why there is so much misinformation in economics. I wrote:

Hazlitt does more than lay out basic economics and explode the fallacies behind various beliefs in government intervention. He also explains why much of the bad thinking is so widespread. In chapter 1, "The Lesson," Hazlitt notes that the inherent difficulties in understanding economics are multiplied a thousand times "by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine--the special pleading of selfish interests." No group is out lobbying for us to doubt whether gravity exists, some California bumper stickers to the contrary. But slick, well-paid, plausible-sounding lobbyists do try to make us doubt whether we're better off buying goods cheaper from foreign countries, because these spokesmen represent powerful interests whose jobs and wealth depend on persuading us that free trade causes losses.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Jacob Oost writes:

Hazlitt even says that collective bargaining could smooth over the bidding process for wages in certain situations (he doesn't say what they are), and he often qualifies things he says, such as by saying "inflation issues aside."

Economics in one lesson is an excellent book, each lesson describing how, ceterus paribus, various cause-and-effect relationships work together. I think he knows the reader is smart enough to see that all other things aren't always equal.

When recommending econ books, I always recommend four:

Basic Economics by Sowell
Economics in One Lesson by Hazlitt
New Ideas From Dead Economists by Bucholz
and Economics for Dummies

All primers made for the lay-person, each one supplying what the others lack and reinforcing what they all share.

Saloner writes:

Between Hazlitt, Sowell, Bucholz and Heilbroner a motivated layman can acquire key rules of thumb that enable him to make sense of news and situations.

Given the current merry-go-round nature of the debates regarding the economic situation and the management thereof, however, and specially the misunderstanding, if one set of economists are to be believed, of seemingly simple arithmetic identities by other reputed economists, I wonder if it's fair to modify Dr.Henderson's review to read: "Indeed, were 100 professional economists to stop writing their abstract economics articles and, instead, start writing as clearly as Hazlitt on the same subjects he wrote on, the ECONOMICS PROFESSION would become dramatically more informed about economics, and well could become freer as a result."

JP writes:

I just want to point out, for readers who may not be aware of it, that a complete PDF of "Economics in One Lesson" can be downloaded free at the website of the Foundation for Economic Education: fee.org

David R. Henderson writes:

Saloner,
I accept your friendly amendment.
David

Greg Ransom writes:

Let's tell the truth about Brad DeLong.

He's happy to grossly misrepresent the work of economists he happily attacks on the ground that they make absurd DeLong's own leftist politics.

DeLong could care less not only of the "ifs" or "buts" in their work, he cares less for the actual core of their work.

He's another lefty who -- if you get right down to it -- just isn't honest.

And there are too damn many of them in academia.

David R. Henderson writes:

Greg,
I don't disagree with all your criticisms, but I think Brad DeLong is way more interesting, in a good sense, than you seem to think. Check out his review of James C. Scott's "Seeing Like a State." Or check out his piece on Cornucopia. DeLong is a leftist, but he's not a garden-variety leftist.
Best,
David

Saloner writes:

Dr.Henderson,
My amendment was certainly friendly; but, more pertinently, it was a reflection of deep disappointment: The seeming inability of the profession to find some acceptable, not necessarily ideal, middle ground regarding the best way forward, atleast in the blogosphere, has been a shame. I understand perfectly well that the economy doesn't lend itself to cookie cutter formulations and approaches; but I think it inconceivable that the profession hasn't learnt enough from the past to come up with a compromise solution that eliminates the worst mistakes of the past; or that educated, and fair minded, professionals, can't keep above "Us" Vs. "Them" debate standards, specially at a time like this when the country looks to its best minds to clarify the situation.
What happens atop the hill at DC is another thing entirely, but I did place great hopes on the Economics blogosphere to actively debate and come up with atleast a sensible consensus. I was being naive perhaps.
Great's the pity really.

Classic Liberal writes:

Jacob Oost forgets a great (probably the first) writer on basic economic thought: Frederic Bastiat. Actually, the french is the precedent of Hazlitt's work, Economics in one lesson, as he says in the introduction.

Greg Ransom writes:

I once thought of DeLong they way you do now, David.

I'm aware that DeLong does interesting empirical work.

And I'm aware of his review of Scott's book.

But the bottom line is that DeLong isn't really interested in getting his work right when it's flat out wrong - and he knows it. He's happy with a false account of the history of economic thought, and actual economics history -- his false account serves his purpose, and that's the beginning and the end of it for DeLong.

That's my considered judgment. I sure others know his work better, and have a better assessment of the facts.

But when I've encountered DeLong, he gets his stuff wrong (a lot of it is really shallow stuff, a bogus history of ideas) -- and he doesn't care.

David write:

>>Greg,
I don't disagree with all your criticisms, but I think Brad DeLong is way more interesting, in a good sense, than you seem to think. Check out his review of James C. Scott's "Seeing Like a State." Or check out his piece on Cornucopia. DeLong is a leftist, but he's not a garden-variety leftist.
Best,
David

Greg Ransom writes:

I'm more bothered by the fact that DeLong is a hack than I am by the fact that he's a lefty.

The only lefties I have trouble with are the ones who don't play it straight, and my radar says DeLong is one of those.

And I openly acknowledge my radar my be wrong.

Curt writes:

David writes:

"No group is out lobbying for us to doubt whether gravity exists, some California bumper stickers to the contrary. But slick, well-paid, plausible-sounding lobbyists do try to make us doubt whether we're better off buying goods cheaper from foreign countries, because these spokesmen represent powerful interests whose jobs and wealth depend on persuading us that free trade causes losses."

Just a few points on this:
1. We don't see too many people or things levitating, so yes, we pretty much 'believe in' gravity, and it's hard to make a case against it.
2. We do sometimes see things that make us wonder about some trade... such as domestic dislocations in manufacturing, workers having a hard time making transitions, etc. I think there are very reasonable questions about how a free trade agenda can leave us with less resiliency in case of downturn.
3. Why is it that so often people who profess to believing in the market also seem to worry so much about 'bad thinking' and 'misinformation' - do they trust people to work out what's best for themselves or not?

SheetWise writes:

"Why is it that so often people who profess to believing in the market also seem to worry so much about 'bad thinking' and 'misinformation' - do they trust people to work out what's best for themselves or not?"

What's best for yourself should lie within the boundaries of the law, decency, and respect for the truth. The difference between rape and seduction is subtle.


voxpo writes:

Curt writes:

"Why is it that so often people who profess to believing in the market also seem to worry so much about 'bad thinking' and 'misinformation' - do they trust people to work out what's best for themselves or not?"

For themselves. Right. Not for others.

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