I recently found the time to read Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson” (available online here). The book conclusively demonstrates that any attempts to coerce the free market can only result in the short term gains of special interest groups at the expense of everyone else and that even these short term gains are more than canceled out in the long term. The value to me in taking the time to read it was not in learning anything particularly new but in knowing that a detailed and very well-written explanation of a number of statist ideas exists in one place. Hazlitt writes that all statist fallacies essentially consist of considering only the immediate and visible consequences of a particular policy while ignoring the secondary and not-easily-visible consequences – an idea that was expressed by Bastiat long ago in 1850.
More than the book itself, what is interesting to me is the fact that the fallacies in statist ideas have been exposed long ago (Hazlitt’s book was published in 1946 and Hazlitt himself takes no credit for being original) and yet these ideas continue to be widespread among the general public as well as among trained economists and policy-makers. In fact, the financial crisis we are seeing at the moment is the inevitable result of some of these same fallacies (more on that in future posts) and the alleged cure is more of the same. The inescapable question then is: Are statist ideas really fallacies or mere rationalizations? Are they really held out of genuine ignorance and/or confusion or is there some other explanation? Hazlitt seems to think that they are genuine fallacies caused by the fact that the immediate consequences of interventionist and coercive policies are all too obvious while the secondary and long term consequences are not so obvious. I think that is a far too charitable view. It is inconceivable to me that simple arguments cannot be grasped by trained economists or intelligent laymen. Hazlitt also mentions how the paid spokesmen of special interest groups are able to drive out “dis-interested” writers simply because of their dis-interest (a mechanism also discussed by Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom). While this is certainly part of the reason why special interest groups can control the government, it does not explain the support for statist ideas among the dis-interested public.
As an example, a few days back, I had a long and futile argument with some colleagues about the ineffectiveness of statist policies. Now these colleagues are certainly intelligent enough to grasp the fallacies inherent in statist ideas. Moreover they have no reason to support such ideas for any special interest. Yet they continue to defend them. And inspite of any concessions they may have made during the argument, I am sure that the same points will come up in the next argument. As one of them put it, (paraphrasing) “I am not opposed to capitalism, but I am a socialist at heart.” To me, that is the source of the persistence of these fallacies. Altruism is totally incompatible with the working of the free market. But as long as it is accepted, no amount of rational argument (such as the ones in Hazlitt’s book) can genuinely convince a person that collectivist and socialist ideas always achieve the opposite of their stated purposes.
Hazlitt shows how raising prices of a particular product (whether by tarrifs or other methods) to create employment penalizes all the consumers of that product (the public interest?), how lowering prices of a particular product drives out all the marginal producers (the disempowered?) and also creates shortages so that only those with more purchasing power can afford the product, how minimum wages cause unemployment by preventing people whose services are worth less than the minimum wage from being employed at all (the most needy?), how rent controls raise the rents in new buildings enormously (housing for the poor?) while simultaneously removing all incentive for (or even ability to) improve/repair existing buildings, how inflation – necessitated by deficit spending to fund all the welfare programs – essentially acts as a tax whose impact is felt highest by the poor etc, etc, etc… not to mention that all these measures also reduce the total product of the economy (the public interest?)
But the point is that the cure suggested by all these fallacies – regardless of any evidence – the free market, where every individual is free to pursue his own interests and is not legally responsible for the “welfare” of others is morally unacceptable to the altruists, and no amount of merely economic arguments can change that.