November 28 marks the 1894 birth of one of American history’s most prolific public intellectuals—Henry Hazlitt. According to Llewellyn Rockwell, Hazlitt “was familiar with the work of every important thinker in nearly every field” and “wrote in every important public forum of his day.” His published work as a journalist, literary critic, philosopher, and economist ran to roughly ten million words before his death in 1993, including perhaps the most popular economics book ever written—Economics in One Lesson (though looking back on that book later, Hazlitt concluded that “so far as the politicians are concerned . . . the lesson . . . does not seem to have been learned anywhere”).
According to Tom Malone, “What set Hazlitt apart from other writers on economics was the incredible clarity of his writing and his ability to make the subject interesting to laymen. He did this by focusing on principles, using practical examples, and writing in a direct and conversational style.” Further, Malone wrote that
When H.L. Mencken selected Hazlitt to succeed him as literary editor at the American Mercury, he called Hazlitt the “only competent critic of the arts that I have heard of who was at the same time a competent economist,” as well as “one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”
In that vast output, perhaps Hazlitt’s most important contribution was his consistent defense of the central importance of liberty in American life, even though it lost him more than one job. At a time where a real commitment to liberty is very scarce, Americans need to remember his wisdom. The following pieces of wisdom can be found in his various writings:
Liberty is the essential basis, the sine qua non, of morality. Morality can only exist . . . to the extent freedom exists . . . no one, including the government, will be allowed to interfere with one’s freedom.
Government planning always involves compulsion.
The crying need today is not for more laws, but for fewer. If the friends of liberty and law could have only one slogan it should be: Stop the remedies!
In a thousand fields the welfarists, statists, socialists, and interventionists are daily driving for more restrictions on individual liberty.
A day never passes without some ardent reformer or group of reformers suggesting some new government intervention, some new statist scheme to fill some alleged ‘need’ or relieve some alleged distress.
The future of human liberty . . . means the future of civilization.
True adherents of liberty . . . [believe] in limited government, in the maximization of liberty for the individual and the minimization of the coercion to the lowest point compatible with law and order.
The “private sector” of the economy is, in fact the voluntary sector . . . the “public sector” is, in fact, the coercive sector.
The superior freedom of the capitalist system, its superior justice, and its superior productivity are not three superiorities, but one. The justice follows from the freedom and the productivity follows from the freedom and the justice.
Precisely because the State has the monopoly of coercion it can be allowed the monopoly only of coercion. Only if the modern State can be held within a strictly limited agency of duties and powers can it be prevented from regimenting, conquering, and ultimately devouring the society which gave it birth.
The solution to our problems is not more paternalism, laws, decrees, or controls, but the restoration of liberty and free enterprise.
Short-sighted and impatient efforts to wipe out poverty by severing the connection between effort and reward can only lead to the growth of a totalitarian state, and destroy the economic progress that this country has so dearly bought.
Liberty is so precious an end in itself that Lord Acton was moved to declare that it is “not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Yet though liberty is beyond doubt an end in itself, it is also of the highest value . . . as a means to most of our other ends. We can pursue not only our economic but our intellectual and spiritual goals only if we are free to do so.
Moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another . . . include wrongful interference with each other’s freedom.
Our intelligentsia. . . . misprize economic liberty because . . . they lack the knowledge or understanding to recognize that when economic liberties are abridged or destroyed, all other liberties are abridged or destroyed with them.
Liberty is a whole, and to deny economic liberty is finally to destroy all liberty.
The love of liberty is the lover of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
The State, of course, is absolutely indispensable to the preservation of law and order, and the promotion of peace and social cooperation. What is unnecessary and evil, what abridges the liberty and therefore the true welfare of the individual, is the State that has usurped excessive powers and grown beyond its legitimate function.
The quickest and surest way to production, prosperity, and economic growth is through private enterprise. The best way for governments to encourage private enterprise is to establish justice, to enforce contracts, to insure domestic peace and tranquility, to protect private property, and to secure the blessings of liberty, including economic liberty—which means to stop putting obstacles in the way of private enterprise.
Government’s main economic function is to encourage and preserve a free market. When Alexander the Great visited the philosopher Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes is said to have replied: “Yes, stand a little less between me and the sun.” It is what every citizen is entitled to ask of his government.
Henry Hazlitt recognized liberty as the only moral system and recognized economic liberty, or capitalism, as the only means of organizing a society that can benefit all. He defended that position powerfully against many attacks. As Ludwig von Mises described him, “in this age of great struggle in favor of freedom and the social system in which men can live as free men, you . . . are the economic conscience of our country.” During his life, Hazlitt saw America taking the opposite course, with ever more resources forcibly taken from some for whatever and whoever the government decides. Now, much farther down that path, his understanding is even more important.