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Henry Hazlitt, Public Intellectual as Economist

Henry Hazlitt, Public Intellectual as Economist

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Published by Bryan Castañeda

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Published by: Bryan Castañeda on Apr 23, 2012
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08/26/2012

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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2030464
1The Public Intellectual as Economist: The Case of Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993)Peter Boettke
 
Mr. Henry Hazlitt … is the only competent critic of the arts that I have
ever heard of who was at the same time a competent economist, of practical as well as theoretical training, and he is one of the feweconomists in human history who could really write.-- H. L. Mencken (1933, 123-124)I.
 
IntroductionHenry Hazlitt began his career as a journalist at 
The Wall Street Journal 
while still ateenager, and it was there that his interest in economics grew as he embarked on apath of self-study as a matter of practical necessity for job success. He read Philip
Wicksteed’s
The Common-Sense of Political Economy 
, which he found at the Flatbush,Brooklyn branch of the New York Public Library, and the book was, as Hazlitt 
described “a revelation” to him. Hazlitt, in fact borrowing
liberally from John Keats
’s
 
“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” characterized his good fortune in
stumbling upon
The Common-Sense
 
as: “M
uch have I traveled in the realms of gold,etc. Yet never did I breathe its pure serene. Till I heard Wicksteed speak out loud
and bold.”
1
Subsequently, Hazlitt would pursue a lifetime of economic study andeconomic journalism, and held positions at 
The New York Evening Mail 
,
The New 
 
University Professor of Economics & Philosophy at George Mason University, and BB&T Professor
for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center. Paper prepared for HOPE conference on “TheEconomist as Public Intellectual”.
Current version is a conference draft not to be quoted without permission of the author. I have benefitted from the research assistance of Matthew Boettke and LiyaPalagashvilli, and the comments and criticisms of Bruce Caldwell, Tyler Cowen, Chris Coyne, DavidHebert, Peter Leeson, Peter Lipsey, David Levy, and Nick Snow. The usual caveat applies.
1
 
Hazlitt, “80
th
 
Birthday Talk,” November 27, 1974, The Henry Hazlitt Archives, Universidad
Francisco Marroquin. DOC5603.pdf.
 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2030464
2
York Sun
,
The Nation
,
The American Mercury 
,
The New York Times
, and
Newsweek 
.In addition to his journalistic work writing signed and unsigned economic editorials,Hazlitt was an author of books ranging from literary criticism to social philosophy,with multiple volumes in economics, political economy, and public policy in-between. Hazlitt even wrote an economic novel,
Time Will Run Back 
that attemptedto illustrate the failures of central planning. His
Economics in One Lesson
(1946) isperhaps his best known work, but his critical work on Keynes, as well as his work onethics, garnered professional attention with reviews in
The American EconomicReview 
,
 Journal of Political Economy 
,
Economic Journal 
, and
Ethics
. Even when thegeneral thrust of the review was negative, the critic would more often than not 
begrudgingly acknowledge Hazlitt’s unusual strengths in exposition and even
analysis.Typically, we think of economists as becoming public intellectuals tocomplement their scientific careers; I want to flip that around and consider the caseof a public intellectual who through his years of close study of economic problems asa journalist and his own independent study of economic theory and philosophy,sought to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge. The quintessentialexamples of the first category of economists would be Milton Friedman and JohnKenneth Galbraith, with contemporary examples ranging from Paul Krugman toSteve Levitt. But journalists who strive to make contributions to economic theoryare a rarity
Frederic Bastiat among the classics and Hazlitt among the moderns.
2
 
2
 
Walter Lippmann, a contemporary of Hazlitt’s, is an obvious example, though his work was more at 
the edge of political theory, political science, and public policy. However, his work 
e.g.,
The Good Society 
(1937), was reviewed in the top economics journals. Relevant for my project is the fact that 
 
3On the contemporary scene, I would list Sylvia Nasar, David Warsh, and TimHarford, though it is important to remember that Nasar
’s
 A Beautiful Mind 
andWarsh
’s
Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
are primarily reporting on thecontributions of others in the science rather than offering their interpretation of economic theory let alone attempting to offer an original contribution to economicunderstanding.
3
Hazlitt argued that even if originality is denied to him as aneconomist, he should be seen as defending the orthodox teachings of economics
from Adam Smith onward against the “New Economics” that threaten to overturn
the classics.
“Re
-
establishing old truths can often be as necessary,” Hazlitt insisted,“as discovering new ones.”
4
 As we will see, Hazlitt also maintained an active correspondence with leadingeconomists throughout the 20
th
century, and developed a very close personalrelationship with several leading economic thinkers.
5
He actively promoted theideas of certain economists in the world of ideas with timely reviews and behind thescenes discussions with publishers. He was an original and active member of theMont Pelerin Society throughout his working life.
Lippmann in
The Good Society 
sought to blend the Mises and Hayek critique of collectivism with thelessons from Keynes that a modern economy can be regulated without the threat of dictatorship.Hazlitt, as we will see, was as persuaded by the Mises/Hayek critique as Lippmann, but was not convinced of the argument (or wisdom) from Keynes.
3
 
However, it is important to note that Nasar’s recent work,
The Grand Pursuit 
(2011) is an effort at 
original interpretation in the history of modern economic thought, and Warsh’s
The Idea of EconomicComplexity 
(1984) was an effort at presenting a cutting edge idea within economics at the time.
4
 
See Hazlitt’s unpublished autobiography, ‘My Life and Conclusions,” p. 44, Henry Hazlitt Archives,
DOC24289.pdf.
5
 
In his archives there are letters from not only Mises and Hayek, and other representatives of theAustrian School of Economics, but also Lionel Robbins, Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, and even PaulSamuelson.

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