BY HENRY HAZLIT
Economics In One Lesson, Part Three, Chapter 24: The Lesson Restated
Economics, as we have now seen again and again, is a science of recognizing secondary consequences. It is also a science of seeing general consequences. It is the science of tracing the effects of some proposed or existing policy not only on some special interest in the short run, but on the general interest in the long run.
This is the lesson that has been the special concern of this book. We stated it first in skeleton form, and then put flesh and skin on it through more than a score of practical applications.
But in the course of specific illustration we have found hints of other general lessons; and we should do well to state these lessons to ourselves more clearly.
In seeing that economics is a science of tracing consequences, we must have become aware that, like logic and mathematics, it is a science of recognizing inevitable implications.
We may illustrate this by an elementary equation in algebra. Suppose we say that if x=5 then x + y = 12. The “solution” to this equation is that y equals 7; but this is so precisely because the equation tells us in effect that y equals 7. It does not make that assertion directly, but it inevitably implies it.
What is true of this elementary equation is true of the most complicated and abstruse equations encountered in mathematics. The answer already lies in the statement of the problem. It must, it is true, be “worked out.” The result, it is true, may sometimes come to the man who works out the equation as a stunning surprise. He may even have a sense of discovering something entirely new—a thrill like that of “some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken.” His sense of discovery may be justified by the theoretical or practical consequences of his answer. Yet his answer was already contained in the formulation of the problem. It was merely not recognized at once. For mathematics reminds us that inevitable implications are not necessarily obvious implications.
All this is equally true of economics. In this respect economics might be compared also to engineering. When an engineer has a problem, he must first determine all the facts bearing on that problem. If he designs a bridge to span two points, he must first know the exact distance between those two points, their precise topographical nature, the maximum load his bridge will be designed to carry, the tensile and compressive strength of the steel or other material of which the bridge is to be built, and the stresses and strains to which it may be subjected. Much of this factual research has already been done for him by others. His predecessors, also, have already evolved elaborate mathematical equations by which, knowing the strength of his materials and the stresses to which they will be subjected, he can determine the necessary diameter, shape, number and structure of his towers, cables and girders.
In the same way the economist, assigned a practical problem, must know both the essential facts of that problem and the valid deductions to be drawn from those facts. The deductive side of economics is no less important than the factual. One can say of it what Santayana says of logic (and what could be equally well said of mathematics), that it “traces the radiation of truth,” so that “when one term of a logical system is known to describe a fact, the whole system attaching to that term becomes, as it were, incandescent.”
Now few people recognize the necessary implications of the economic statements they are constantly making. When they say that the way to economic salvation is to increase “credit,” it is just as if they said that the way to economic salvation is to increase debt: these are different names for the same thing seen from opposite sides. When they say that the way to prosperity is to increase farm prices, it is like saying that the way to prosperity is to make food dearer for the city worker. When they say that the way to national wealth is to pay out governmental subsidies, they are in effect saying that the way to national wealth is to increase taxes. When they make it a main objective to increase exports, most of them do not realize that they necessarily make it a main objective ultimately to increase imports. When they say, under nearly all conditions, that the way to recovery is to increase wage rates, they have found only another way of saying that the way to recovery is to increase costs of production.
It does not necessarily follow, because each of these propositions, like a coin, has its reverse side, or because the equivalent proposition, or the other name for the remedy, sounds much less attractive, that the original proposal is under all conditions unsound. There may be times when an increase in debt is a minor consideration as against the gains achieved with the borrowed funds; when a government subsidy is unavoidable to achieve a certain purpose; when a given industry can afford an increase in production costs, and so on. But we ought to make sure in each case that both sides of the coin have been considered, that all the implications of a proposal have been studied. And this is seldom done.
The analysis of our illustrations has taught us another incidental lesson. This is that, when we study the effects of various proposals, not merely on special groups in the short run, but on all groups in the long run, the conclusions we arrive at usually correspond with those of unsophisticated common sense. It would not occur to anyone unacquainted with the prevailing economic half-literacy that it is good to have windows broken and cities destroyed; that it is anything but waste to create needless public projects; that it is dangerous to let idle hordes of men return to work; that machines which increase the production of wealth and economize human effort are to be dreaded; that obstructions to free production and free consumption increase wealth; that a nation grows richer by forcing other nations to take its goods for less than they cost to produce; that saving is stupid or wicked and that dissipation brings prosperity.
“What is prudence in the conduct of every private family,” said Adam Smith’s strong common sense in reply to the sophists of his time, “can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.” But lesser men get lost in complications. They do not re-examine their reasoning even when they emerge with conclusions that are palpably absurd. The reader, depending upon his own beliefs, may or may not accept the aphorism of Bacon that “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” It is certainly true, however, that a little economics can easily lead to the paradoxical and preposterous conclusions we have just rehearsed, but that depth in economics brings men back to common sense. For depth in economics consists in looking for all the consequences of a policy instead of merely resting one’s gaze on those immediately visible.
In the course of our study, also, we have rediscovered an old friend. He is the Forgotten Man of William Graham Sumner. The reader will remember that in Sumner’s essay, which appeared in 1883:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. . . . What I want to do is to look up C. . . . I call him the Forgotten Man. . . . He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.
It is an historic irony that when this phrase, the Forgotten Man, was revived in the nineteen thirties, it was applied, not to C, but to X; and C, who was then being asked to support still more X’s, was more completely forgotten than ever. It is C, the Forgotten Man, who is always called upon to stanch the politician’s bleeding heart by paying for his vicarious generosity.
Our study of our lesson would not be complete if, before we took leave of it, we neglected to observe that the fundamental fallacy with which we have been concerned arises not accidentally but systematically. It is an almost inevitable result, in fact, of the division of labor.
In a primitive community, or among pioneers, before the division of labor has arisen, a man works solely for himself or his immediate family. What he consumes is identical with what he produces. There is always a direct and immediate connection between his output and his satisfactions.
But when an elaborate and minute division of labor has set in, this direct and immediate connection ceases to exist. I do not make all the things I consume but, perhaps, only one of them. With the income I derive from making this one commodity, or rendering this one service, I buy all the rest. I wish the price of everything I buy to be low, but it is in my interest for the price of the commodity or services that I have to sell to be high. Therefore, though I wish to see abundance in everything else, it is in my interest for scarcity to exist in the very thing that it is my business to supply. The greater the scarcity, compared to everything else, in this one thing that I supply, the higher will be the reward that I can get for my efforts.
This does not necessarily mean that I will restrict my own efforts or my own output. In fact, if I am only one of a substantial number of people supplying that commodity or service, and if free competition exists in my line, this individual restriction will not pay me. On the contrary, if I am a grower of wheat, say, I want my particular crop to be as large as possible. But if I am concerned only with my own material welfare, and have no humanitarian scruples, I want the output of all other wheat growers to be as low as possible; for I want scarcity in wheat (and in any foodstuff that can be substituted for it) so that my particular crop may command the highest possible price.
Ordinarily these selfish feelings would have no effect on the total production of wheat. Wherever competition exists, in fact, each producer is compelled to put forth his utmost efforts to raise the highest possible crop on his own land. In this way the forces of self-interest (which, for good or evil, are more persistently powerful than those of altruism) are harnessed to maximum output.
But if it is possible for wheat growers or any other group of producers to combine to eliminate competition, and if the government permits or encourages such a course, the situation changes. The wheat growers may be able to persuade the national government—or, better, a world organization—to force all of them to reduce pro rata the acreage planted to wheat. In this way they will bring about a shortage and raise the price of wheat; and if the rise in the price per bushel is proportionately greater, as it well may be, than the reduction in output, then the wheat growers as a whole will be better off. They will get more money; they will be able to buy more of everything else. Everybody else, it is true, will be worse off; because, other things equal, everyone else will have to give more of what he produces to get less of what the wheat grower produces. So the nation as a whole will be just that much poorer. It will be poorer by the amount of wheat that has not been grown. But those who look only at the wheat farmers will see a gain, and miss the more than offsetting loss.
And this applies in every other line. If because of unusual weather conditions there is a sudden increase in the crop of oranges, all the consumers will benefit. The world will be richer by that many more oranges. Oranges will be cheaper. But that very fact may make the orange growers as a group poorer than before, unless the greater supply of oranges compensates or more than compensates for the lower price. Certainly if under such conditions my particular crop of oranges is no larger than usual, then I am certain to lose by the lower price brought about by general plenty.
And what applies to changes in supply applies to changes in demand, whether brought about by new inventions and discoveries or by changes in taste. A new cotton-picking machine, though it may reduce the cost of cotton underwear and shirts to everyone, and increase the general wealth, will throw thousands of cotton pickers out of work. A new textile machine, weaving a better cloth at a faster rate, will make thousands of old machines obsolete, and wipe out part of the capital value invested in them, so making poorer the owners of those machines. The development of atomic power, though it could confer unimaginable blessings on mankind, is something that is dreaded by the owners of coal mines and oil wells.
Just as there is no technical improvement that would not hurt someone, so there is no change in public taste or morals, even for the better, that would not hurt someone. An increase in sobriety would put thousands of bartenders out of business. A decline in gambling would force croupiers and racing touts to seek more productive occupations. A growth of male chastity would ruin the oldest profession in the world.
But it is not merely those who deliberately pander to men’s vices who would be hurt by a sudden improvement in public morals. Among those who would be hurt most are precisely those whose business it is to improve those morals. Preachers would have less to complain about; reformers would lose their causes: the demand for their services and contributions for their support would decline. If there were no criminals we should need fewer lawyers, judges and firemen, and no jailers, no locksmiths, and (except for such services as untangling traffic snarls) even no policemen.
Under a system of division of labor, in short, it is difficult to think of a greater fulfillment of any human need which would not, at least temporarily, hurt some of the people who have made investments or painfully acquired skill to meet that precise need. If progress were completely even all around the circle, this antagonism between the interests of the whole community and of the specialized group would not, if it were noticed at all, present any serious problem. If in the same year as the world wheat crop increased, my own crop increased in the same proportion; if the crop of oranges and all other agricultural products increased correspondingly, and if the output of all industrial goods also rose and their unit cost of production fell to correspond, then I as a wheat grower would not suffer because the output of wheat had increased. The price that I got for a bushel of wheat might decline. The total sum that I realized from my larger output might decline. But if I could also because of increased supplies buy the output of everyone else cheaper, then I should have no real cause to complain. If the price of everything else dropped in exactly the same ratio as the decline in the price of my wheat, I should be better off, in fact, exactly in proportion to my increased total crop; and everyone else, likewise, would benefit proportionately from the increased supplies of all goods and services.
But economic progress never has taken place and probably never will take place in this completely uniform way. Advance occurs now in this branch of production and now in that. And if there is a sudden increase in the supply of the thing I help to produce, or if a new invention or discovery makes what I produce no longer necessary, then the gain to the world is a tragedy to me and to the productive group to which I belong.
Now it is often not the diffused gain of the increased supply or new discovery that most forcibly strikes even the disinterested observer, but the concentrated loss. The fact that there is more and cheaper coffee for everyone is lost sight of; what is seen is merely that some coffee growers cannot make a living at the lower price. The increased output of shoes at lower cost by the new machine is forgotten; what is seen is a group of men and women thrown out of work. It is altogether proper—it is, in fact, essential to a full understanding of the problem—that the plight of these groups be recognized, that they be dealt with sympathetically, and that we try to see whether some of the gains from this specialized progress cannot be used to help the victims find a productive role elsewhere.
But the solution is never to reduce supplies arbitrarily, to prevent further inventions or discoveries, or to support people for continuing to perform a service that has lost its value. Yet this is what the world has repeatedly sought to do by protective tariffs, by the destruction of machinery, by the burning of coffee, by a thousand restriction schemes. This is the insane doctrine of wealth through scarcity.
It is a doctrine that may always be privately true, unfortunately, for any particular group of producers considered in isolation—if they can make scarce the one thing they have to sell while keeping abundant all the things they have to buy. But it is a doctrine that is always publicly false. It can never be applied all around the circle. For its application would mean economic suicide.
And this is our lesson in its most generalized form. For many things that seem to be true when we concentrate on a single economic group are seen to be illusions when the interests of everyone, as consumer no less than as producer, are considered.
To see the problem as a whole, and not in fragments: that is the goal of economic science.
 George Santayana, The Realm of Truth (1938), p. 16.
Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.