Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It's been a Hazlitt love fest lately! What do you think?

Peter Boettke, Don Boudreaux, and Alberto Mingardi have talked up Hazlitt lately. I mentioned to Jonathan Catalan on facebook that I haven't read enough Hazlitt to say whether he is a "public intellectual" of note or not (that's the claim that's going around). I have, however, read enough longish passages by Hazlitt on Keynes from fans of his in my comment section and elsewhere to feel pretty strongly that he really didn't seem to have anything valuable to say about Keynes at all, and that there's nothing I've come across in that record that would lead me to endorse Boettke's view that he's a notable public intellectual.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there isn't justification for that title in other things that he's written.

Two other points:
1. Krugman is certainly going to be wrong if he claims that Hazlitt was wrong in everything he wrote. Whatever the value of Hazlitt's own thinking in economics, he was clearly well read so presumably there's a lot of stuff he wrote about economics that all economists (Krugman included) would agree on. So in this sense I agree with Boettke but my suspicion is that "wrong about everything" was hyperbole in the first place so it's not something to get so bent out of shape about.

2. If you like Hazlitt, you're not being a very good ambassador for him by questioning Krugman's status as a public intellectual (Boettke) or suggesting that Krugman "bought his ticket" to the public debate rather than being "self-made" like Hazlitt (Mingardi). Remarkably Boudreaux was the only one who didn't bash Krugman in getting out his post. And this is just in these posts. Of course much worse has been said about Krugman by these guys. Lecturing others on intellectual civility isn't going to fly when you try to pull stuff like that.
So what do you think? What is the case for Hazlitt's brilliance? Point me to something (a particularly persuasive passage or article, not a whole book) that you think proves the case. I hear assertions to this effect but not much on what people like. Boudreaux provides a passage, but again this seems like evidence to me that Hazlitt did not grasp what was at issue in the big economic questions of the day, not that he did.


  1. I will say that Hazlitt was not much read when I was in graduate school (early 1970s), but what I did run across made him sound grumpy because he wasn't being read...which is probably unfair, but there you go.

  2. I'll just post three articles that I enjoyed back when I originally read them. Granted, I still enjoy them today, but for different reasons than I did then. I know that there will be portions of great disapproval from you, but I also think that there will be many areas of agreement. While I am mostly a person who likes to read books, I've often found myself concerned with what people were saying at the time of certain events, so I read quite a few old articles every now and then. That's actually how I first came upon Hazlitt, it was only later that I read some of his books. Another guy who I've read in terms of articles was Garet Garett.

    Doc mentions above that Hazlitt wasn't much read. Well yes, this possibly is quite true in terms of the 1970s. But really, Hazlitt was much read in the 30's, 40s, and 50s. I think that the cultural shift during the 60s pretty much made him fall out of favor. It happens. In fact, Garrett also had that problem: he was widely popular in the 20s, but during the 30s he was highly critical of government policy, and he then just disappeared off of the map. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, I really don't know, I can only judge the men by what they wrote, which is what got me interested in the first place.




    1. Hazlitt's writings just seem to me to have the premises about how 'great' markets are implied throughout, but he doesn't justify them at all. Appeals to evidence are scant and vague, and he seems to spend half his time introspecting about life. He would have been better off simply sticking to journalism instead of writing books claiming to teach 'economics in one lesson'.

    2. Of course you don't find Hazlitt convincing since he demolishes your idol Keynes in his works. I predict nothing he said will meet this ridiculous challenge you've set. That's like a young earth creationist challenging others to show him convincing arguments of evolution and he'll be the judge if they're convincing or not, and thus far they haven't been. How noble of you.

    3. Far from 'demolishing' Keynes, Hazlitt simply had no idea what he was talking about. In the various passages I've read from, he has:

      - Spent more time making snarky comments than arguments;

      - Agreed with Keynes about liquidity preference, while trying to make out he wasn't;

      - Misunderstood the difference between schedules and equilibria wrt the labour market;

      - Failed to understand the difference between probability and uncertainty.

      I'm not a fan of Whig history, but sometimes people are not listened to for a reason. In Hazlitt's case, it was not because he went against the grain (far from it, in fact) but because he was incompetent.



  3. Noted Central Planner and Big Boss of Bosses Keynes wrote:

    Only experience, however, can show how far management of the rate of interest is capable of continuously stimulating the appropriate volume of investment.

    For my own part I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment [emphasis added]; since it seems likely that the fluctuations in the market estimation of the marginal efficiency of different types of capital, calculated on the principles I have described above, will be too great to be offset by any practicable changes in the rate of interest.
    TGT P.164

    Hazlitt brilliantly responded:

    So there you have it. The people who have earned money are too shortsighted, hysterical, rapacious, and idiotic to be trusted to invest it themselves. The money must be seized from them by the politicians, who will invest it with almost perfect foresight and complete disinterestedness (as illustrated, for example, by the economic planners of Soviet Russia). For people who are risking their own money will of course risk it foolishly and recklessly, whereas politicians and bureaucrats who are risking other people's money will do so only with the greatest care and after long and profound study. Naturally the businessmen who have earned money have shown that they have no foresight; but the politicians who haven't earned the money will exhibit almost perfect foresight.

    1. Hazlitt failing as usual to refute Keynes. Keynes was simply referring to the cumulative effect of individuals operating in a market for capital, not their individual capacity for estimating the MEC. Hazlitt's is a typical anti-gummut diatribe, not a real argument. No wonder he is so insignificant in the history of thought.

      And what is Hazlitt's ignorant reference to Soviet Russia about? It had very high GDP growth.

    2. That's nonsense. Keynes said it:

      I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.

      The reference to Soviet Russia was about CENTRAL PLANNING. Keynes' reference to the "state...taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment" refers to CENTRAL PLANNING. The assumption is that the people with the guns and the jails have a priori better information than do the economic actors themselves. Such garbage.

      The point made is so uncomplicated that it defies your usual attempts to obfuscate.

      And the "gummut", those folks who killed Jews and Ukranians and tens of millions of others? Real funny. Profound even.

    3. Keynes is talking about limited government funded public works in times of recession as a way of stimulating aggregate demand, which then get reduced as a real output expansion is restored.

      If you think that is equivalent to full-blown Soviet central planning, then you are deluded as our prize idiot friend Bob Roddis, who once happily confessed to us that he cannot even understand the concept of a market clearing price. After that confession, it's clear Roddis has nothing of any significance to say about economics.

    4. Not to mention that Keynes

      (1) isn't saying that capitalists are "too shortsighted, hysterical, rapacious, and idiotic to be trusted to invest it themselves," but talking about their collapsed expectations, and referring to how to restore their expectations (via increased demand, sales and expected demand) so that their confidence will be restored.

      (2) isn't saying government has perfect foresight, or

      (3) that the wealth of investors "money must be seized." In fact, Keynes would have been thinking of voluntary bond issues to the private sector to fund government deficits.

      Hazlitt is revealed as a total idiot reduced to straw man arguments.

    5. It follows, you simpleton. Hazlitt destroyed the eugenics loving man you so admire, which, naturally, makes you angry.

    6. "The point made is so uncomplicated that it defies your usual attempts to obfuscate."

      Right backatcha - let me repeat: Keynes is not referring to the individual processing capabilities of anyone, but the systemic result of decisions made in the financial markets, over which no market participant has much control.

      "And the "gummut", those folks who killed Jews and Ukranians and tens of millions of others? Real funny. Profound even."

      Erm, do you actually think there is some group of people called 'the government' who have ruled societies from Genghis Khan to Hitler to contemporary liberal democracies?



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