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 So for the past 6 months I have been reading Hazlitt’s correspondence, reading unpublished papers, memorandums, etc.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.