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Good writing and a misleading title mask heavy political bias
on 26 December 2014
In the field of economics writing, it is surely difficult to write a paragraph – let alone an entire book - that can’t be reasonably subject to lengthy argument and criticism. Hazlitt – intentionally or not – presents his writing as somewhat beyond this, by framing himself as a no-nonsense, straight-talking debunker of existing paradigms. I feel this style probably catches a great number of people off-guard to the extent that they might miss flaws in Hazlitt’s own arguments and – crucially – swallow whole the implicit suggestion that this book is apolitical in nature. It is not – the book is heavily weighted towards the ideologies of what we now call neoliberalism.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the title is very misleading – especially for a reader naïve to economics. I posit a more appropriate title would read something like:
“Neoliberalist Ideology & Austrian Economics in One Lesson”
A change of title like that would go some way (but not far enough) towards altering the framing and context, and thus diffusing some of my criticism of the contents.
Within the actual pages of the book, there are a couple of things going. One: the writing is good - Hazlitt is clear, easy and even fun to read in some respects. Two: there is a noticeable theme of very craftily honed but ultimately dishonest argument and prose, designed to direct the reader towards the political corner in which Hazlitt sits. I should point out here that I am not criticising Hazlitt for his political beliefs – after all this is a book review. I’m criticising the book for its hidden politics, and its misrepresentation of political argument in favour of certain economic policies, under the guise of presenting the ‘correct’ (read ‘most efficient’) way to structure an economy.
Most of the political flavour is inserted through subtle writing techniques, from the run-of-the-mill (using unqualified adjectives to exaggerate and minimise certain quantities) to the more elaborate (delaying discussion of obvious and valid counterpoint arguments until the very end of a chapter, then dismissing them as exceptional or irrelevant). However, once or twice, Hazlitt trips up to the extent of making a flat-out contradictory or logically flawed argument. For example, in Chapter II, Hazlitt bemoans the continued and widespread use of the ‘broken window fallacy’. However, on page 62, he then himself uses the broken window fallacy in one of his arguments! Here is the evidence:
(after explaining the broken window fallacy - Google it for an explanation)
“No new ‘employment’ has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party, the tailor.”
On page 62:
(in the middle of arguing, essentially, that certain worker’s rights are nothing more than economic inefficiencies)
“The householder who is forced to employ two men to do the work of one has, it is true, given employment to one extra man. Bur he has just that much less money left over to spend on something that would employ somebody else. Because his bathroom leak has been repaired at double what it should have cost, he decides not to buy the new sweater he wanted. “Labour” is no better off, because a day’s employment on an unneeded tile-setter has meant a day’s dis-employment of a sweater knitter or machine handler. The householder, however, is worse off. Instead of a having a repaired shower and a sweater, he has the shower and no sweater. And if we count the sweater as part of the national wealth, the country is short one sweater.”
Do you see the fallacy? The country is NOT short one sweater – by Hazlitt’s own logic in Chapter II (and elsewhere in the book) the sweater money has simply been given to the 2nd labourer, with which it can easily purchase that same sweater.
It is through the crack of this small misstep in Hazlitt’s arguments and writing that you can see the whole chasm of his ideology beyond. It is possible that Hazlitt did not realise how politicised his intellect and writing was – I give him the benefit of the doubt here. I should also say that he does present a great deal of useful material; many of the fallacies and logical errors he highlights are in fact very true and well presented. The problem is that as he sweeps these things away under the guise of what he sees as education, he guides the reader into his political realm, and in doing so likely instills within them a whole other set of fallacies – ones that conveniently aren’t dealt with in this book.