Henry Hazlitt - Economics in One Lesson: 50th Anniversary Edition

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The Myth of the Quick Fix

Jul 14, 2006
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Easily understood. Quick read.

Cons:Plenty of observations. Few solutions.

The Bottom Line: Read this book to understand that often the best intentions do more harm than good.

Pluck the tiniest flower, disturb the furthest star.

I’m uncertain who first made the statement written above, however it says a lot about the connectedness of everything. Decisions, even when made with the best intentions, rarely affect just the surface of any issue. If we’re lucky, and the decisions are made with plenty of insight, the result will improve the entire system. But if the focus is only on the surface, and not the “core” issue or issues, then entire house of cards may fall.

In Economics in One Lesson, author Henry Hazlitt warns the reader of the dangers involved when governments engage in “quick fix” economic decisions. First published in 1946, the book is based upon an essay by French liberal economist Fredric Bastiat entitled Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas (What is Seen and What is Not Seen). Both Bastiat’s and Hazlitt’s writings remain important parts of the Libertarian canon to this day.

The book begins with a retelling of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. As the story goes, a bakery is vandalized in the middle of the night, and a window is broken. Most passersby sympathize with the baker, until one person points out that the broken glass will mean more work for the glassmaker and possibly the brickmason. Both Bastiat and Hazlitt implore the reader to look beyond this seemingly good news story. Even though the glassmaker and brickmason may increase their business, the baker will be out the money it takes to buy a new window—money he could have used to buy clothes, or some other commodity. The lesson is simple. To fully evaluate the effect of any decision on an ecomony, one must look at how that decision affects the entire depth of same, not stop at the first positive result and call success

Yet, according to the author, this is exactly what our government is doing each time it interfers with the natural course the market takes on a daily basis. Hazlitt proves his theory in the remaining 25 chapters of Economics in One Lesson, by focusing each chapter on any one of the full spectrum of historical government decisions like saving businesses, ensuring full employment, setting minimum wages and work hours and price fixing. In each instance, he discusses the surface issue government wished to address, followed by the second and third order effects of that decision, which inevitably caused more harm than good.

Readers who aren’t economists will certainly appreciate Hazlitt’s simple, common sense approach to each issue. I found that he didn’t waste time in lengthy exposition of each topic either, choosing instead to cut right to the heart of the matter. I greatly appreciated this since it meant I didn’t have to cull my undergraduate library for supporting documentation. Economics was never my forte, and I’ve only recently discovered (really accepted) the magnitude of effect it has on the community of nations.

What readers will not find anywhere in Economics in One Lesson are detailed solutions to any of the problems examined within the book. Hazlitt seemed content in only exposing the shortfalls created by overinvolved governments rather than offering lengthy remedies. About all I was able to infer was his unshakable belief that free market ecomony and laissez-faire government were the best ways to manage any system. In short, if the absence of government interference in any economy means some people lose their jobs or are paid low wages, then Hazlitt believes it’s for the better, since the remainder will continue to be better off. It’s basically economic darwinism.

The late Mr. Hazlett was a libertarian philosopher, economist and prolific author of over 25 books. It appears that Economics in One Lesson may be one of his most popular titles, since my edition is the fourth printing in 60 years. And while I found it easy to read, especially for the layperson, it was also conspicuously dry. In fact, although the concluding chapter assures readers that the book is repeatedly updated to accommodate current conditions, the book retains 60 year old language. It still reads like it’s 1946.

Whether you favor a liberal or conservative viewpoint, Economics in One Lesson deserves a place in your library. Hazlitt’s overly pragmatic approach to gaining and maintaing a stable market economy is presented in such a clear and coherent manner that both proponents and opponents of free market economics will learn something useful.

Recommend this product? Yes

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