Economics, Academic Philosophy

Question to the Non-Ideal Theorists of Justice — What Do You Think of Henry Hazlitt?

I am in the midst of finishing off a draft of a paper on Henry Hazlitt for a conference at Duke next month.  The conference is on the Economist as Public Intellectual, and what I am doing is reversing that and discussing the case of a Public Intellectual as an Economist.  Hazlitt, in my opinion, is rivaled in this role only by Bastiat. Perhaps that is overstating it, but ultimately I don’t think so.

I was aided in my task by the availability of Hazlitt’s complete archives which have been compiled at Universidad Francisco Marroquin with the cooperation of the Foundation for Economic Education and Liberty Fund.  So for the past 6 months I have been reading Hazlitt’s correspondence, reading unpublished papers, memorandums, etc.  Great fun.  For those who have sampled Hazlitt’s writings, it also an amazing development that his Newsweek columns have all been collected in Business Tides (2011), and the introduction by historian Paul Milazzo is outstanding.  After reading through online archives at The Nation and The New York Times, it would be awesome to have all his editorials and book reviews in a volume as well.

For readers of BHL, one of the interesting facts of Hazlitt’s life would be that he originally wanted to be a philosopher.  Unfortunately, due to family circumstances he had to leave college to work full-time, and this lead him eventually into the area of journalism.  But he published his first book in 1916 with Dutton — Thinking as a Science.  At The Nation and at The New York Times, Hazlitt was not only an economic journalist, he was an artistic and literary critic.  He reviewed numerous works by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Morris Cohen, John Dewey, etc.  One of his last publishing projects was an edited volume on The Wisdom of the Stoics (1984).

Least you think of Hazlitt as a “movement” intellectual exclusively, I should point out that his books sold well — his most famous work, Economics in One Lesson (1946) reached #6 on NYT best-sellers list for non-fiction, sold 700,000 copies in original edition, and millions of copies in subsequent editions and translations.  His books were also reviewed not only in the major intellectual periodicals, but also in the leading scientific periodicals — American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Economic Journal, American Journal of Political Science, and Ethics.  The subject of the lengthy review essay in Ethics, was Hazlitt’s most sustained work in social philosophy — The Foundations of Morality (1964).  It is an argument for “rule utilitarianism”, and in particular the adoption of general rules of the social game that enable us to live with one another so we can all benefit from social cooperation under the division of labor.  He argues that “social cooperation is the essence of morality.” (1964, 359)  In making this argument, Hazlitt grounds his analysis in the writings of Hume, Smith, Bentham, Mill, Sidwick, Wicksteed, Mises, and Hayek.  The review in Ethics as “Abstract Economics as Absolute Ethics” and it chides Hazlitt for making this sort argument about social cooperation and the private property order.  But Hazlitt’s argument is actually one that is quite comforting to economists and political economists (certainly to those within the broad classical liberal perspective), though not necessarily so comforting to those who believe in natural rights theory or some form of moral intuitionism.  Leland Yeager in Ethics as Social Science (2001) picks up where Hazlitt left off, and places the argument for “rule utilitarianism” in the context of modern social philosophy.  Again, to me, Yeager’s work is persuasive.  It should be, I was the editor of the series that published his book!

When I read contemporary works by non-ideal theorists of justice, I see a lot of similarities with the argument as laid out by Hazlitt.  The arguments are not identical, but they compliment each other nicely in my mind.  Have the contemporary philosophers engaged Hazlitt’s work in-depth at all? (Please provide references)  How about Yeager?  If not, am I misunderstanding the argument as it has evolved within the professional discourse in philosophy and the arguments made by these economists venturing into the field of social and political philosophy?  In other words, rather than be embarrassed by the phrase “Abstract Economics as Absolute Ethics”, should we all just embrace it proudly?

And as an aside, I don’t think embracing this implies a cold heart — you still can have a warm heart, even if you have a very hard head — in other words be an economistic “bleeding heart libertarian”, which is what I think anyone who reads Henry Hazlitt’s The Conquest of Poverty (1973) will realize he was.

  • RicoGutierrez

    I would wager that the vast majority of philosophers (including non-ideal theorists of justice) have never heard of either Hazlitt or Yeager (some libertarians know of Hazlitt, but they tend to be rights-based theorists; some Objectivists know of Yeager). 

    There is a large literature (and an ongoing debate) concerning rule-utilitarianism as a criterion of morally right action. However, there are two common objections to the theory, and many take these to be devastating: (a) it seems to tell you to follow the ideal rules, even if no one else is following them and there’s no chance that anyone else ever will follow them, and (b) it always seems that some more fine-grained set of rules – or even the rule “maximize utility” – would have more optimific consequences than the commonsense set of rules that contains prohibitions on murder and so forth.

    It occurs to me that, if you don’t think it’s possible to provide a strict criterion (necessary and sufficient conditions) of moral rightness, then these objections might seem less impressive.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Just to add to Rico, I am not aware of any engagement with Hazlitt, but the literature on rule-consequentialism is vast. Go here for starters: 

      There are many objections to such a view, in addition to the concerns that Rico raises. The objection I hear most often is that rule-consequentialism collapses into act-consequentialism and that act-consequentialism is very implausible. I accept that criticism, and I think economists should as well (though I haven’t written on this yet). Basically, on the teleological conception of practical reason on which rule-utilitarianism is based, you are sometimes irrational to defect in Prisoners’ Dilemmas. But that seems wrong.

      Another problem is that rule-consequentialism provides the wrong account of our reasons to keep our promises or to care for our friends. Our ultimate reasons to do so are not based on good consequences.

      • I think rule utilitarians (at least, the older ones – I am not familiar with recent debates on this topic) are proposing a change to our moral thinking and practice. They are (or were) reformers. It is no objection to them to point out that our reasons for complying with ordinary moral rules has nothing to with good consequences.  They are telling us what reasons we SHOULD have.

        Even if some recent rule utilitarians say that the reason we have the rules we do have is due to consequences, they may mean that the evolutionary (or other) EXPLANATION for our rules has to do with consequences. And that need imply nothing about the reasons we ENTERTAIN when making moral decisions.  Compare: the reasons for our choice of sexual partners are all to do with  enhancing our reproductive success; but the reasons we entertain when making such choices are rarely concerned with reproductive success.

      • Mike Rappaport

        I read the Hazlitt book many years ago and found it persuasive in a nontechnical way.  It definitely influenced my thinking.  
        Kevin argues that act-consequentialism is very implausible.  I strongly reject this view.  The two level theory of R. M Hare gets largely rule utilitarian conclusions (without the problems) on an act utilitarian basis.  The arguments against it seem very weak.  Most significantly, libertarians should be sympathetic to the understanding that the best way to maximize utility will, due to the needs coordiation, limited knowedge, etc, involve following rules. 

        My guess is that Hazlitt was not aware of the technical objections to rule utilitarianism.  I think his book preceded David Lyons’ work.  But, if confonted with these arguments, my guess is that he would find the Hare argument quite  persuasive.  I certainly do!

      • mikekikon

        Hazlitt addressed these issues in his work, Foundations of Morality. Anyone who criticizes rule-utilitarianism or consequentialism without reading this book is I think doing themselves a huge intellectual disservice.

        Thanks, Pete, for bringing up Hazlitt on here. I feel like his insights and clear presentation have been totally lost on the modern libertarian movement. Having read Hazlitt’s work and reading the philosophical conversations on BHL, my response is always “huh?”  It seems like a lot of the BHL discussion goes on without any clear definition of terminology. I’m not sure why that is, but it makes it very difficult to know what each other is talking about and make any progress towards any substantive conclusions. Hazlitt excels at framing the issues and defining terms early on to avoid falling into messy logical contradictions.

    •  I am not exactly a rule utilitarian, but I do think the true system of morality is the one (assuming there is just one) that has the best consequences for human flourishing broadly conceived. I think I have answers to your two objections, as stated.

      (a) What I have just offered is a sketch of an account of how to rate theories of morality according to their ‘closeness to the truth.’ This account does not tell you to do anything. Even if we could conclude that moral theory M is the true one, what we would then know is what is right and wrong. But it is then for each of us to decide whether we behave morally or not. Most of us (I think all of us) will behave morally some of the time and not the rest of the time (no matter what we think the true theory of morals is).

      (b) The true theory of morality need not coincide with our inherited moral views. It would be startling if it did! So how is it an objection to the above account of moral truth that it might select a moral theory which has rules that differ from the ones we are familiar with?

  • Economics in One Lesson is one of the most important books I have ever read. Making a note to sign up at the archives (I’m a marketing academic by avocation, not an economist or a philosopher, but I am interested in both — without unfettered voluntary mutual exchange, marketing can be a means to all sorts of pernicious ends) and to add The Conquest of Poverty to the reading list.

  • Kevin —

    I know of the literature in general, I was asking a more specific question related to Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality.  It was reviewed at length in 1966 in Ethics — in fact, I believe the lead article.  It was a dismissive review, but still a review in Ethics.

    A quick search on google scholar basically has 100+ cites to the book, but it dies in the professional literature after discussions in Ethics, JPE, and JEI in 1966-67 period.  The book was reissued in 1972 by IHS.

    In doing this paper, I just re-read the book and am very favorably inclined to the core argument and think the critics missed the point because they failed to come to grips with the full implications of the economic argument being made and the system effects which cannot be picked and chosen from despite however much we would like to believe they could be.

    I actually think Hazlitt starting from economics and branching to philosophy ends up in the same place as Schmidtz and Gaus starting from philosophy and branching to economics do.

    Where do you think I am going wrong in that intellectual narrative?

    • Kevin Vallier

      I will have to read the Hazlitt. Adam’s been after me awhile to read it. But it depends on what “ends up in the same place” comes to. If you mean “advocates the same institutions” then perhaps, but I doubt that Hazlitt’s rule-utilitarianism is similar to Jerry’s contractualist conception of practical reasoning or Dave’s moral dualism. Traditional rule-utilitarianism begins ethics from the outside-in, starting with an account of objective well-being (even if it has subjective elements) and then determining which rules promote that well-being. But Jerry does ethics from the inside-out, starting from the reasons that individual agents recognize and building the justification of moral rules outward. Dave starts from the inside-out as well (though via eudaimonism), though he thinks he can launch into a third-personal, quasi-consequentialist perspective in a way that Jerry does not.

      • Mark LeBar

        I will second Kevin’s comment. I have read The Foundations of Morality, and I was not very impressed. I thought he should have stuck to his day job. Partly that is because I am not very sympathetic to consequentialism generally — as Kevin suggests, it is particularly poorly situated to account for what practical reasons we take ourselves to have. (That is entirely independent of merely explanatory theories, which have other problems.) But I take it also to have been surpassed by superior rule-utilitarian work at about the same time (there was a lot of it, most of it more sophisticated philos0phically, though perhaps not economically).

  • Where does evolutionary descriptions of our ethics fall into this? 

  • mikekikon

    From The Foundations of Morality:

    “Many ethical writers have contended during the last two centuries that “no accumulation of observed sequences, no experience of what is, no predictions of what will be, can possibly prove what ought to be.” (1) And others have even gone on to assert that there is no way of getting from an is to an ought.
    If the latter statement were true, there would be no possibility of framing a rational theory of ethics. Unless our oughts are to be purely arbitrary, purely dogmatic, they must somehow grow out of what is.
    Now the connection between what is and what ought to be is always a desire of some kind. We recognize this in our daily decisions. When we are trying to decide on a course of action, and are asking advice, we are told, for example: “If you desire to become a doctor, you must go to medical school. If you desire to get ahead, you must be diligent in your business. If you don’t want to get fat, you must watch your diet. If you want to avoid lung cancer, you must cut down on cigarettes,” etc. The generalized form of such advice may be reduced to this:. If you desire to attain a certain end, you ought to use a certain means, because this is the means most likely to achieve it. The is is the desire; the ought is the means of gratifying it.
    So far, so good. But how far does this get us toward a theory of ethics? For if a man does not desire an end, there seems no way of convincing him that he ought to pursue the means to that end. If a man prefers the certainty of getting fat, or the risk of a heart attack, to curbing his appetite or giving up his favorite delicacies; if he prefers the risks of lung cancer to giving up smoking, any ought based on the assumption of a contrary preference loses its force.
    A story so old that it is told as an old one even by Bentham (2) is that of the oculist and the sot: A countryman who had hurt his eyes by drinking went to a celebrated oculist for advice. He found him at table, with a glass of wine before him. “You must leave off drinking,” said the oculist. “How so?” says the countryman. “You don’t, and yet methinks your own eyes are none of the best.” — “That’s very true, friend,” replied the oculist: “but you are to know, I love my bottle better than my eyes.”
    How, then, do we move from any basis of desire to any theory of ethics?
    We find the solution when we take a longer and broader view. All our desires may be generalized as desires to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory state. It is true that an individual, under the immediate influence of impulse or passion, of a moment of anger or rage, malice, vindictiveness, or the desire for revenge, or gluttony, or an overwhelming craving for a release of sexual tension, or for a smoke or a drink or a drug, may in the long run only reduce a more satisfactory state to a less satisfactory state, may make himself less happy rather than more happy. But this less satisfactory state was not his real conscious intention even at the moment of acting. He realizes, in retrospect, that his action was folly; he did not improve his condition, but made it worse; he did not act in accordance with his long-run interests, but against them.
    He is always willing to recognize, in his calmer moments, that he should choose the action that best promotes his own interests and maximizes his own happiness (or minimizes his own unhappiness) in the long run. Wise and disciplined men refuse to indulge in immediate pleasures when the indulgence seems only too likely to lead in the long run to an overbalance of misery or pain.
    To repeat and to sum up: It is not true that “no amount of is can make an ought.”The ought rests, in fact, and must rest, either upon an is or upon a will be. The sequence is simple: Every man, in his cool and rational moments, seeks his own long-run happiness.
    This is a fact; this is an is. Mankind has found, over the centuries that certain rules of action best tend to promote the long-run happiness of both the individual and society.
    These rules of action have come to be called moral rules. Therefore, assuming that one seeks one’s long-run happiness, these are the rules one ought to follow.
    Certainly this is the whole basis of what is called prudential ethics. In fact, wisdom, or the art of living wisely, is perhaps only another name for prudential ethics.
    Prudential ethics constitutes a very large part of all ethics. But the whole of ethics rests upon the same foundation. For men find that they best promote their own interests in the long run not merely by refraining from injury to their fellows, but by cooperating with them. Social cooperation is the foremost means by which the majority of us attain most of our ends. It is on the implicit if not the explicit recognition of this that our codes of morals, our rules of conduct, are ultimately based. “Justice” itself (as we shall later see more clearly) consists in observance of the rules or principles that do most, in the long run, to preserve and promote social cooperation.
    We shall find also, when we have explored the subject further, that there are no irreconcilable conflicts between egoism and altruism, between selfishness and benevolence, between the long-run interests of the individual and those of society. In most cases in which such conflicts appear to exist, the appearance exists because only short-run consequences, and not consequences over the long run, are being taken into consideration.
    Social cooperation is, of course, itself a means. It is a means to the never completely attainable goal of maximizing the happiness and well-being of mankind. But the great difficulty of making the latter our direct goal is the lack of unanimity in the tastes, ends, and value judgments of individuals. An activity that gives one man pleasure may be a great bore to another. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” But social cooperation is the great means by which we all help each other to attain our individual ends, and so to attain the ends of “society.” Moreover, we do share a great number of basic ends in common; and social cooperation is the principal means of attaining these also.
    In brief, the aim of each of us to satisfy his own desires, to achieve as far as possible his own highest happiness and well-being, is best forwarded by a common means, Social Cooperation, and cannot be achieved without that means.
    Here, then, is the foundation on which we may build a rational system of ethics.”

  • Gabe

    when will you be at Duke? I live in the area and would like to come hear you talk.