Henry Hazlitt’s Long-Term Economic Thinking: Foundation of Entrepreneurial Excellence
The Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture, sponsored by Hunter Lewis. Recorded at the Mises Institute on March 22, 2019. Includes an introduction by Joseph T. Salerno.
The Austrian Economics Research Conference is the international, interdisciplinary meeting of the Austrian School, bringing together leading scholars doing research in this vibrant and influential intellectual tradition. The conference is hosted by the Mises Institute at its campus in Auburn, Alabama, and is directed by Joseph Salerno, professor of economics at Pace University and academic vice president of the Mises Institute.
Henry Hazlitt’s Long-Term Economic Thinking: Foundation of Entrepreneurial Excellence | Robert Luddy
In 1946, a book named Economics in One Lesson was written by a man who did not think it would have a great impact beyond the economic fallacies of his day.
That amazing man was Henry Hazlitt.
Now over one million copies have been sold and it remains in print.
It is a personal honor to lecture about Hazlitt: He is one of my favorite writers on economics, political economy, and ethics. Economics in One Lesson, which was based in part on Bastiat’s essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” debunks the most prominent economic fallacies of the past and the present, summing up economics as long-term versus ephemeral thinking.
He wrote more than twenty books and was the principal editorial writer on finance and economics for The New York Times for twelve years and a columnist for Newsweek for twenty years. More importantly, his writing was thoughtful, incisive, and influential, and he played a significant role in supporting, introducing, and explaining the ideas of Mises and also Hayek. He is a stellar example of the impact one person can have on our society. My mentor, Dr. Bill Peterson (a student and colleague of Mises) and his wife Mary were good friends of Hazlitt, so although I never met Henry, I did receive first-hand knowledge of his life and work from the Petersons.
I am thankful to Laura Bennett Peterson, Bill and Mary Peterson’s daughter, for assisting me with this lecture. Laura grew up knowing Hazlitt and she has been exceptionally helpful with her knowledge and insights about him. Dr. Peterson was very complimentary of Hazlitt’s writing and personal courage, especially when he opposed the Bretton Woods agreement. Hazlitt knew Bretton Woods would cause inflation. The New York Times had no interest in criticizing this agreement, and that sent Hazlitt looking for a new job.
Hulsmann indicates in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism that Hazlitt may have been one of Mises’ first close American friends. In 1940, Hazlitt received a call from “Mises speaking,” and he described the encounter as if “John Stuart Mill were speaking.” This was the beginning of a long-term friendship between Hazlitt and Mises. By explaining economic theory, Hazlitt enabled many entrepreneurs to think clearly and correctly. Most of the time the world promotes compliance with existing ideas and punishes critical thinking and new ideas. This was Germany’s mentality in the early 20th century, Mises was treated miserably because of what he thought; this is common today. Profound thinkers are rarely appreciated and often scorned. Today we are witnessing this in our universities, which were created for thinkers but now suppress original thoughts.
This talk focuses on three of Hazlitt’s central concerns:
- His book, The Foundations of Morality, established a high standard of morality. Current events demonstrate a widespread lack of morality in our society.
- His book, Thinking as a Science, elevates thinking to a new level. Today everyone is “thinking outside of the box.” The problem is, most people are not thinking most of the time.
- His book, Economics in One Lesson, introduces us to classical-liberal thinking, which is foreign to most Americans
He wisely pointed out, along with Mises, that economics “is a description, explanation, or analysis of the determinants, consequences, and implications of human action and human choice.” Hazlitt’s economic thinking is thus grounded on human behavior. 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. Hazlitt was a giant in financial journalism, as noted in Jim Grant’s Hazlitt lecture. But Hazlitt was also a public intellectual with unique insights on morality, thinking, and political economy. We will begin with Hazlitt’s understanding of morality as embodying long-term thinking, his foundational theme.
This is his most powerful message.
For Hazlitt, “morality is essentially, not the subordination of the ‘individual’ to ‘society’ but the subordination of immediate objectives to long-term ones.” Hazlitt realized that the long-term interests of the individual would serve the long-term interests of society. The long-term interests of the individual depend on social cooperation, as Hazlitt points out:
“Social cooperation is the foremost means by which the majority of us attain most of our ends.” (The Foundations of Morality, 13) CAS stresses cooperation as the primary way we can progress as a company. It can be challenging and requires humility. We witness the parade of lobbyists seeking government favors: lobbyists from GM, the U.S. steel industry and Tesla, to name just a few. I might add our universities to this list, since the federal government helps to fund their excessive spending. These companies and institutions are rent seekers and tariff promoters.
German and Asian automakers, which also manufacture in America, received no bailouts and don't want tariffs. In fact, BMW exports 75 percent of the SUVs it makes in South Carolina. Hazlitt reminds us to let the market decide, as “dying industries absorb labor and capital that should be released for growing industries.” Hazlitt believed that bailouts and tariffs are short-term solutions to long-term industry problems. Hazlitt’s concept of morality can be summed up in two of his own sentences: “The conduct we call moral is the conduct we consider likely to lead to the most satisfactory situation in the long run.” And “immoral action is nearly always short-sighted action.”
These important principles are lost on our society today.
The challenge for entrepreneurs:
We must focus on the long term in spite of tremendous pressure to think only over the short term. Markets are very competitive, and sometimes promote short-term thinking and solutions. But we know, short-term decisions can be very costly in the long run. It is imperative to teacher our students about Hazlitt. Many domestic steel manufacturers raised prices over this past year even higher than the steel tariffs. It did not work, Users take notice and take action. In the long term our domestic steel industry will be harmed by tariffs.
This is human action in the marketplace.
We are witnessing a parade of successful entrepreneurs, as well as leaders in all walks of life, 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. Our society promotes and praises loud and unethical leaders such as Elizabeth Holmes, Elon Musk, but companies and investors suffer. Companies suffer because of these unethical individuals in charge: think of VW, Lehman Brothers, Tesla, and now Boeing. Conversely, Warren Buffet is not an Austrian Economist but he is an excellent investor, capital allocator has an exceptional reputation for honesty and became rich in the long run. Companies and Investors flock to him. The market requires moral leaders because the market cannot function without integrity.
In addition to morality, Hazlitt makes the need for freedom very clear:
This freedom 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 Americans. It is a system of freedom.
In America, some 300 million people produce 24 percent of the world’s goods. America leads the world in innovation, which is the essence of American exceptionalism.
Too Many countries undermine freedom and the results are clear. The EU has slow growth and high unemployment. In Venezuela, freedom is denied to the point of starvation.
There is concern that the free market creates inequities and failures. But Hazlitt points out that “a free-market system tends to give to every social group, and to every individual within each group, the value of what it or he has contributed to production.”
Hazlitt sums it up perfectly. Socialists refuse to understand free markets. They fail to see that production is based on incentives, not coercion. Some politicians live off the fat of the land but hate producers, freedom and success. It would be entertaining to read what Hazlitt might write about the lunacy of the Green New Deal and massive government debt.
Successful businesses must have a strong record of morality and must think long term to survive in a competitive marketplace.
The CEO of Boeing would probably affirm this statement, at least right now. Unfortunately, Boeing’s marketing group convinced the FAA the 737 Max was the same as the old reliable 737. This wasn’t true. Even many pilots were not aware of the complexity of the new MCAS software. The FAA did not understand the new Boeing technology, so why are they regulating. The 737 Max’s software relied on a single sensor, which failed. Some important safety features were sold as “options,” not standard equipment. Those options weren’t chosen by Lion Air or Ethiopian Air, but you can count on them being standard in the future. Internal concerns from Boeing engineers and pilots’ reports to the NASA system were ignored.
Why? Boeing was focusing on competing with Airbus, which had the lead; morality and long-term thinking be damned. No one will ever think of Boeing in the same way and there could be criminal as well as civil liability.
Lesson learned: One must bear in mind, as Hazlitt taught, the long-term consequences of conduct. Industries must be 100 % responsible 100 % of the time.
H. L. Mencken described Hazlitt as "one of the few economists in human history who could really write." Hazlitt wrote well because he thought well. Hazlitt, affirms in his book, Thinking as A Science, that most people are not thinkers. I love Hazlitt’s observation that if there is a problem and a solution is needed, “They want to look it up.”In today’s world, they’d want to “Google it.”
Too many of our educational institutions are propaganda centers and not cultivators of thinking people. Many institutions suppress thinkers and demand compliance with politically correct, non-thinking popular culture, which undermines an entrepreneurial America.
I often tell our students and our interns: How you think will determine your future. Good thinking and cooperation are critical to making progress in life. Hazlitt was a great thinker by analyzing the long-term consequences of economic policies, such as tariffs and monetary and fiscal policy. He knew that our thinking will have major consequences, for good or evil. His book, The Failure of the New Economics, masterfully refutes Lord Keynes’s General Theory by showing Keynes’s theories as nothing more than bad thinking.
Two great thinkers in the 20th century were the Wright brothers. The Wright brothers were successful in flight because they visualized the need for “suitable controls” to balance the plane once it is in the air. Our government sponsored Samuel Langley who failed to realize the need for suitable controls in flight.
The Wright Brothers took no government money, they are a perfect future model for Entrepreneurs. Thinking ability is the greatest single advantage of the entrepreneur. “The greatest resource,” as Julian Simon put it, “is the human mind.”
Thinkers in business applied the principles of “exit” and disruption. Think of technologist Balaji Srinivasin in genomics and mobile money, and of UBER, Airbnb, and self-driving cars. Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen is among those who have studied old industries that were disrupted by new companies with a better approach.
Nucor Steel, an upstart in 1960 with its minimills, is now the largest steel company in the U.S. Our only task as entrepreneurs is to serve the user.
CaptiveAire thinks in the long-term, continuously. Even with the steel tariffs in effect since 2018, CaptiveAire has refused to raise prices beyond our normal level. We gain market share because we think long-term, and we generate profits by always putting our users’ interests first.
We witness short-term ideas and fallacious claims every day.
- Socialism is being sold hard as a solution to a problem that does not exist in America.
- There is a Green New Deal to save our planet, which is doing pretty well.
- Debt and deficits do not matter, as long as interest rates are low. Congress does not even attempt to balance the budget.
- Free trade is portrayed as the enemy of prosperity but in fact it has made us rich.
Hayek in The Road to Serfdom described those who would “buy” such fallacious claims as the gullible.
Problems and solutions must be well-thought out and understood before changes are made. Good decisions require real thinking, which is hard and time-consuming.. Yet without good thinking, the consequences may be catastrophic.
Hazlitt sets a clear path for entrepreneurs who think long term.
The entrepreneur must make the hard decisions at the right time, based on the known facts that are often sparse in the creative world. In 1978, when we began making kitchen ventilation hoods, the machines to create more hoods faster did not exist… In 1983, the computerized hydraulic-press brakes we needed were invented by Darley in Holland. This technology revolutionized the sheet metal industry. Hydraulic-press brakes increased productivity four times and the now fully-automated machines produce eight times what they did in 1982. In 1988, international alloy prices were spiking, causing stainless steel prices to increase dramatically. My solution was to find an stainless steel product less vulnerable to volatile alloy price spikes.
CaptiveAire adopted two important changes that transformed the industry:
- We light-weighted Commercial hoods, saving 20% of the metal.
- We changed the standard from 304 to 430 stainless steel, saving another 20%.
In 2008, most of the food service industry adopted our 1988 standards using 430 metal when possible. CaptiveAire was a little-known manufacturer with sales of nine million dollars in 1988. These and other decisions propelled us to a half-billion dollars in sales last year. Changes are risky, but the long-term outcome was that CaptiveAire became the leading producer of commercial kitchen hoods in North America.
In 1925, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and President Calvin Coolidge applied a supposedly “scientific” method in determining the marginal federal income tax rate. They chose 25 percent. The decreased income tax rate helped America to enjoy the Roaring Twenties’ economy. After the stock market crashed in 1929, Hoover prolonged the Great Depression by raising the marginal rate to 63 %. Tariffs averaged 40 % with the Smoot-Hawley Act.
Hazlitt clearly describes the tax dilemma:
When the total tax burden grows beyond a bearable size, the problem of devising taxes that will not discourage and disrupt production becomes insoluble.
Hazlitt cautioned that tariffs do not raise the standard of living; they have the opposite effect, which we witness today.
Tariffs are self-inflicted wounds and the current trade wars are slowing economic growth here and abroad. Growth is slowing internationally because of tariffs.
On free trade, Hazlitt quotes Adam Smith:
In every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of people to buy whatever they want of those who sell the cheapest.
Free trade should be intuitive, especially with the example of the 50 American states, which comprise the largest unilateral free-trade zone in history.
But despite the value of free trade, large numbers of Americans believe tariffs raise our standard of living and create jobs. The steel tariffs under President George W. Bush were meant to help American steel companies, but ended up hurting even more companies and causing the loss of 200 thousand jobs in industries using steel.
This exemplifies how a short-sighted policy hurts entire industries in the long term. Hazlitt’s long-term approach is imperative for America.
Three things we desperately need to think about in regard to the long term are:
- Eliminating fiscal deficits
- Educating our children
- Focus on integrity to the market place, not special interests.
These policies would greatly benefit our economy: The more the deficit Reducing Government spending allows more investment capital, allocated by entrepreneurs not government. The better our students are educated, the more productive our workforce will be.
U.S. K-12 public schools are one of the largest monopolies in history. Costs are high, quality is low, discipline and character formation are gone. In America’s public schools, you don’t get what you pay for. In 2007, I opened a private K-12 chain of private schools named The Thales Academy. Hazlitt’s morality, thinking, and long-term outcomes formed our philosophy.
The Thales standard is the highest possible academic quality and character formation for each student at the lowest possible cost. The cost for K-5 is $ 5,000.00 per year and has not changed since the founding. Today we have 8 campuses and 3,100 students. My goal is to grow Thales to 25,000 students as an example of what can be done. The Thales model is changing the way parents think of K-12 education.
One important lesson I have learned, which is contrary to conventional wisdom, is that it takes a very long time to establish a great company. And the process never ends! Individuals, companies, and our government must think about the long-term effects of their actions.
Conclusion: Why Hazlitt Matters for the Entrepreneur
Hazlitt states that an entrepreneur is "a capitalist willing to take unusual risks." His theories of morality and long-term economics are found in every story of a successful entrepreneur. When an entrepreneur is able to achieve excellence, society is benefited as a whole. However, the entrepreneur can only achieve excellence when freedom prevails. Calls for the government to provide its citizens with every necessity, whim, and craving lead to chaos. Venezuela is a leading example of this. This is why the moral entrepreneur is critical to the market: He is not concerned with garnering the most rights for himself, but rather gaining the most customers by serving.
Hazlitt explains, “the rules of morality are those rules of conduct that tend most to increase human cooperation, happiness and well-being” The entrepreneur’s morality directly correlates with society’s well-being; the job is never done for entrepreneurs and economists. Hazlitt never went to college: his thoughts were not dependent on what he already knew, but rather on trying to explore things he did not know. Edwin Land affirmed this way of learning and thinking when he said: “Creativity begins at the edge of the known.”
This is how successful entrepreneurs operate: They make guesses and take risks off of the edge of what they already know. They apply their thinking skills to make the best possible decisions using the information they have today to positively influence the long-term future. My Message to entrepreneurs: Maintain humility in realizing that you don’t and can’t know everything.
In the words of Dr. Bill Peterson, “None of us get it all right.” No matter how much you know, it will always be a fraction of what is already known.
In the 40 plus years that CaptiveAire has existed, we have made many mistakes but our policy is that if we are wrong, we pay the price, not our users. In 2016, we designed a new leading-edge Roof Top Heating and Cooling unit for commercial buildings. This new technology uses a modulating compressor so it’s very efficient and can provide 100 % outside fresh air to buildings. We learned from past errors and elected to have a three-year BETA testing of this product. We know we are 100 % responsible for the performance of this product for the next 20 plus years. Hazlitt’s long term philosophy does work in the market and it fact this is how the market works. Entrepreneurs aggressively seek new knowledge and rethink everything: they carry the torch of Hazlitt. We live at a time where Entrepreneurs & Producers are the villains and the heroes are the Government and Politicians. I quote Bill Peterson: “Entrepreneurs are every bit the heroes of our society.”
I might add, the takers are the real villains. As we witness rallies and hear cheers for the short-term economic policies, we must think of the long-term to achieve the American dream. Hazlitt, Mises and Hayek lived in more challenging times, but our society is on the road to Serfdom unless the Austrian School prevails; as economic illiteracy rules the day. Hazlitt’s morality through long-term thinking is hard to sell to the public because Human Nature lives in the present and wants it now. Our country’s foundation is being shaken by the lack of and therefore 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.
We could use an army of Hazlitts today: men and women of courage and wisdom, who are unafraid to speak and write the truth.
I conclude with Hazlitt’s words.
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.