Economics In One Lesson, 50th Anniversary Edition

Economics In One Lesson, 50th Anniversary Edition
Henry Hazlitt
Laissez Faire Books, 1996

This book, first published in 1946, explains common fallacies (a false or mistaken idea) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book Mr. Hazlitt explains:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

At first it seems as though not much has changed since the end of World War II. What has changed, though, is the scope of the dangers Mr. Hazlitt identifies. That’s because government is much expanded and more assertive today than when this book was written. In 1946 the New Deal was not very old, and the tremendous expansion of government social programs was still in the future. We should take these lessons as even more important today.

It is the overlooked consequences that cause harm. They are overlooked sometimes because they are difficult to see, as in the broken window fallacy explained by Frederic Bastiat and also in this book. They are also “overlooked” because, as Mr. Hazlitt tells us, one group wants special favors from the government, and although there is no way to grant these favors without harming some other group, the favor-seeking group will seek to hide, obfuscate, muddle, or minimize the bad effects. At the same time they promote the policy as good for everyone. This is largely the job that lobbyists perform, and billions are spent on it each year. That’s because a powerful government has the ability to bestow valuable favors, those favors being paid for by someone else, someone often not easily seen.

An example of overlooked secondary consequences is government spending. When government spends, it means it must tax or borrow. What government spends is not available for individuals to spend. When we see magnificent public works (say a new downtown arena in Wichita), we don’t see all the things that would have been bought had the government not taxed to build the public work. We see the jobs created by the public work — all the construction workers that will be building the new arena — but we don’t see the jobs destroyed because people had to reduce their spending elsewhere.

Foreign trade is a case where people often fail to grasp the complete picture. We often see exports as something good for our economy, while imports are seen as bad. Imported things are things that American workers can’t compete with, and so American jobs are lost, it is often said. But as Mr. Hazlitt says: “It is exports that pay for imports. The greater exports we have, the greater imports we must have, if we ever expect to get paid. The smaller imports we have, the smaller exports we can have. Without imports we can have no exports, for foreigners will have to funds with which to buy our goods.” So those wanting restrictions on imports are also — although they do not say this, either because they do not recognize it or it doesn’t matter to them — calling for fewer exports.

In recent years we have been told that our is a “consumer-driven” economy, fueled by people tapping their home equity that accumulated from increased home values, or spending by going into debt. It is as though if consumers started saving rather then spending on immediate consumption, the American economy would collapse. But Mr. Hazlitt tells us that “saving is only another form of spending.” After all, what is done with money that is saved? Today, few put their savings under the mattress. Instead, it is loaned to a bank or invested. Then it is spent on capital goods, which businesses use to increase their productive capability. The key fact is that businesses spend it. And, they spend it on capital goods that either expand their capacity to produce, or decease their present costs of production. Either way, that is good for everyone. It means more jobs, and better jobs. But this saving is derided as not being “productive.”

As a conclusion Mr. Hazlitt tells us:

And this is our lesson in its most generalized form. For many things that seem to be true when we concentrate on a single economic group are seen to be illusions when the interests of everyone, as consumer no less than producer, are considered.

To see the problem as a whole, and not in fragments: that is the goal of economic science.

This is a very valuable book, which while dated a bit, cuts through the fog and haze of economics and public policy and lets us understand the effects of our government’s policies.


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