Remembering Henry Hazlitt

By Greaves, Bettina Bien | Freeman, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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Remembering Henry Hazlitt

Greaves, Bettina Bien, Freeman

Henry Hazlitt was one of a very special breed, an economic journalist who not only reported on economic and political events in clear and understandable language, but also made contributions to economics.

When I arrived at FEE in 1951, I was just a neophyte in the freedom philosophy. Hazlitt was a trustee, author of the bestselling Economics in One Lesson, and for several years an editor of the fortnightly free-market-oriented news-commentary magazine, The Freeman, predecessor of FEE's The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

But he was easy to approach; his manner was pleasant, not aloof or overbearing. He was of average height. His features were regular, and he wore a mustache. He dressed appropriately for a journalist working in midtown Manhattan in his day-in suit and tie. He was modest, always thoughtful of others, and one of the kindest and most gracious men I have known. His friends called him Harry, and in time I too came to call him Harry. I was proud to have him as a friend.

Hazlitt was born on November 28, 1894; his father died when he was a baby. He attended a private school established for poor fatherless boys in Philadelphia. When his mother remarried, the family moved to Brooklyn, where he went to the public schools. After high school, he enrolled at New York City's free-tuition City College. But his stepfather died, and he had to drop out of college after a few months to work and support his widowed mother. Yet, as Hazlitt wrote later, his short time at college "had a greater influence than may at first sight be supposed, not as much from the knowledge gamed there, as from the increased consciousness of the knowledge which I still had to gain and the consequent ambition to attain it."1 He became determined to learn.

Books became Hazlitt's university. He embarked on a self-imposed home-study course, reading and writing prodigiously. He read college texts, browsed in libraries, and studied shorthand and typing. He got a job with the fledgling Wall Street Journal, then a rather obscure publication reporting only news of Wall Street. In World War I he joined the Army Air Service and was sent to Texas. At war's end he returned to New York and continued to write for various newspapers-as financial editor, literary editor, editorial writer, editor, and then as a member of the editorial staff of the New York Times, where he wrote most of its economic editorials. He acquired his real education on the job.

Hazlitt was modest; he always attributed his success to good luck-in having read great books and having known great men.

He used to say that the three biggest influences on his economic thinking were: (1) the British clergyman/economist Philip Wicksteed (1844-1927), whose book The Common Sense of Political Economy he encountered early in his career while browsing in a library; this book, based on the subjective marginal-utility theory of value, gave him a sound foundation in economics; (2) Chase National Bank economist Benjamin M. Anderson (1886-1949), a fellow New Yorker whom he saw frequently; and (3) the noted Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973).

Hazlitt lived an active life as a newspaperman. He belonged to several literary societies, attended their luncheons, and met the leading authors and intellectuals of his day. He admired, he once said "almost idolized," H. L. Mencken, whom he briefly succeeded as editor of The American Mercury. Hazlitt frequently debated prominent politicians on the radio: Vice President Henry Wallace, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and U.S. Senators Paul Douglas and Hubert H. Humphrey. He came to know practically all the conservatives and libertarians of his day, not only Mises and Anderson, but also, among others, FEE founder Leonard E. Read, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, John Chamberlain, William F. Buckley Jr., Lawrence Fertig, Sylvester Petro, F. A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand.

In 1938 Hazlitt reviewed for the New York Times the English translation of Mises's Socialism, describing the book as "the most devastating analysis of socialism yet penned.

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