The following article is based on my recent lecture at the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, entitled: “Henry Hazlitt’s Long-Term Economic Thinking: Foundation of Entrepreneurial Excellence.” Here I will explore morality as Hazlitt’s foundational theme in economics.
Henry Hazlitt is considered to be one of the best financial journalists of the 20th century.“He was a giant in financial journalism,” as Jim Grant pointed out in his 2014 Mises Institute lecture entitled “Hazlitt, My Hero.”
Aside from his journalism, Hazlitt was a prolific writer who summed-up economics in “one lesson” in 1946.
Economics in One Lesson was based, in part, on Frederic Bastiat’s essay, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, and delves into the importance of aspects of the economy that are never spoken about, because they never happen. Hazlitt goes one step further, summing up economics not simply as a series of transactions with hidden implications, but in terms of long-term effects outliving the short-term effects of every economic principle or policy.
Hazlitt wrote more than twenty books and was the principal editorial writer on finance and economics for the New York Times for twelve years and was a columnist for Newsweek for twenty years. His writing was thoughtful, incisive, and influential. And he played a significant role in supporting, introducing, and explaining the ideas of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
Though incisive, Hazlitt’s opinions were still subject to criticism. He opposed many popular government initiatives in his day: The New Deal, the Bretton Woods Agreement, and the Marshall Plan. This opposition led to his departure from the New York Times and contributed towards ending his twenty-year-long collaboration with Newsweek.
Henry Hazlitt enabled readers not only to think clearly, but correctly. As Hazlitt’s departure from thatNew York Times indicates, organizations and government demand compliance with existing ideas and punish critical thinkers. Hazlitt’s economic thinking was revolutionary, but his thoughts on morality were paramount.
In his book, The Foundations of Morality, Hazlitt defines morality as “not the subordination of the ‘individual’ to ‘society,’ but the subordination of immediate objectives to long-term ones.” As in his understanding of economics, he realized that the long-term interests of the individual would serve the long-term interests of society.
These long-term interests of the individual depend on social cooperation. As he points out: “Social cooperation is the foremost means by which the majority of us attain most of our ends.” (The Foundations of Morality, p. 13.)
These important principles are often lost on our society today. The challenge for entrepreneurs and leaders is to focus on the long term, in spite of tremendous pressure to think only about the short term.
The recent gyrations of the stock market, based on fears of tariffs or higher interest rates, illustrate how markets react in real time to the effects of current policies. We witness the parade of lobbyists seeking government favors, such as loans, tax credits, and tariffs.
Also, we are witnessing a procession of successful entrepreneurs, as well as leaders in all walks of life, who fall from grace because they lacked morality. These individuals may have brilliant ideas, but they lost sight of the long term and failed to learn Hazlitt’s most important lesson on morality: High integrity is required for the sustainability of an enterprise over the long term.
The market requires moral leaders because the market cannot function without integrity.
In addition to morality, Hazlitt makes the need for freedom very clear: “Liberty is the essential basis, the sine qua non [an essential condition], of morality… only when men are free can they be moral.” (Foundations of Morality, 267-268.) This freedom directly applies to entrepreneurs: In order to have the freedom to succeed, we must have the freedom to fail.
For Hazlitt, capitalism allows for freedom, it does not hinder freedom: “Modern capitalism is not an inevitable or inescapable system, but one that has been chosen by the men and women who live under it. It is a system of freedom.” (Foundations of Morality, 321.)
Our country’s foundation is being shaken by the lack of morality in people today: it is imperative that we integrate long-term thinking into our homes, our schools, our places of work. I challenge you to take up the mantle of Hazlitt and be a courageous writer, debater, and teacher of morality and long-term thinking.
As Hazlitt himself said: “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 liberty, which means the future of civilization.”
We need an Army of “Hazlitts” today: men and women of courage and wisdom, who are unafraid to speak and write the truth.