Why You Should Read “Economics in One Lesson”

Cover of "Economics in One Lesson: The Sh...
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Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt was written just after World War II – after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had been in place for several years. Hazlitt’s was one of the voices objecting to those policies at the time. Fifty plus years after the first release of this book we have an economic policy that makes the Roosevelt era look down right laissez faire.  Hazlitt’s common sense approach has fallen on deaf ears.

The book is 198 pages but ‘The Lesson’ is only the first five pages and can be summarized this way:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups” (p. 5)

Ignoring this principle creates 90% of the economic problems in the world according to Hazlitt. He calls this primary fallacy the fallacy of ignoring secondary consequences.  And it is more common today than ever.

The rest of the book is examples of economic fallacies – all of which can be traced to ignoring ‘the lesson’ and all of which are more or less considered orthodoxy by the economic establishment today.

The first of these is: “War stimulates an economy and is good for business.” Hazlitt calls this the “fallacy of the broken window”  – the idea that when something is destroyed and must be replaced, the economy is stimulated.

He illustrates with a parable:  Suppose someone throws a brick through a shopkeeper’s front widow. Of course this ‘stimulates’ the business of the man who is hired to replace the window. Unfortunately, this is as far as most economic analysis goes – the glass repair shop gets new business, may need to hire more people because of the extra work, and the economy benefits.

True, the glass repair shop gets more business.  However, the shopkeeper must now pay for a new window that he would not have otherwise purchased. This reduces his disposable income.  He now spends less with other merchants than he would have if the window had not been broken.

The glass repair shop may hire someone as a result of the broken window, but the tailor the shopkeeper uses may have to lay someone off because the shopkeeper now cannot afford to buy the new suit he was planning on.  Net effect to the economy – zero. Though a simplistic example (even Hazlitt admits as much) the underlying principle is true yet is violated by most economic policies pursued today.

Some of the other examples highlighted in the book which ignore ‘the lesson’ are:

  • Government secured loans
  • Government price supports for farm products (or other things)
  • Rent control
  • Minimum wage laws
  • Tariffs

In each of these cases, either future consequences of the action are ignored or consequences to other groups are ignored or both. Hazlitt points out several times where failure to consider other than the immediate consequences negatively impacts the people the action was intended to benefit.

For example rent control. The goal of this policy is to help lower income people afford housing.  Because of this, rent control often does not apply to luxury housing. Therefore, people who might otherwise invest in providing affordable housing don’t – for fear of having their investment regulated out of profitability. Instead they build luxury housing that will be exempt from government control.

This reduces the number of housing units available to the people the government is trying to help. Another long term consequence of rent control: at some point the controlled rents are no longer enough for the property owner to afford to maintain the property so properties become run-down – again negatively impacting the people the policy was intended to benefit.

I could go on with example after example.

Henry Hazlitt
Henry Hazlitt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Economics in One Lesson is not a dry economics textbook – it is very readable and clear. In fact the readability of Hazlitt and the clarity of the principles he discusses leads me to believe most economic policies are driven, not by economics, but by the political motives of the theorists and those who implement their schemes.

This book should be required reading from the High School level up as well as for anyone even remotely involved in state or federal government. I would suggest that it be required reading for every member of congress but they normally don’t like to be confused with the facts.

However, for those who view economics as a method of maximizing the quality of life for the average citizen rather than as a way to buy votes for themselves, this book will be a breath of fresh air.

You can get Economics In One Lesson free as a PDF download here at the Mises Institute.

What are some of your favorite books on economics and finance?

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