Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson” is a rigorous case against the ideals of government interventionism in the market economy. In this book, Hazlitt takes an angle first conceived by Frederic Bastiat, an 18th century French Economist. Bastiat famously quoted, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavours to live at the expense of everybody else”, which was to say, the idea that government works for all is as big a lie as sun revolves around the earth. It only sounds nice in fiction and idealism.
In reality a government while arguing for a case, totally disavows another part of the economy. For example, when a government says it will provide benefits to certain sector like agriculture, because it is “vulnerable” or “important”, what it is actually doing is taxing the productive sector and funnelling the money into a competing sector that might not be as productive. For many years, the Nepalese government has been subsidising the petroleum products through a government monopoly, but has the government ever considered where the subsidy is funded from. It is ultimately funded from the taxpayers’ money, from different sectors of an economy.
The most important argument he makes is on “Broken Window Fallacy”. The idea of “Broken Window” is that when a glass window breaks, the owner has to replace it. This circulates the money to the producer of the glass, the carpenter, the transporter and similarly around a large section of the economy, which stimulates economic activities. Hazlitt argues that this fallacy wrongly assumes that it is the breaking of the glass window that stimulates the economy through increase in circulation of money. Rather, if the glass had never been broken, the money could have been invested in an alternative sector, which would further revitalise the economy. The breaking of the window has merely diverted money into another endeavour which would have been better if avoided. In de-constructing “Broken Window Fallacy”, Hazlitt makes a strong case against Keynesian Economists-economists who follow the economic doctrine professed by John M. Keynes.
In another case, Hazlitt posits that “progressive taxation,” which is identified as all noble, also hurts the economy. When the rich in an economy are taxed higher, the amount they can save and re-invest decreases. Since they have a higher marginal propensity to save and a higher marginal propensity to invest in comparison with poorer individuals, this amount that could have been invested back in an economy is lost. As a result, it hampers the productive capacity of an economy.
The book also furthers its case against minimum wage law which is a popular political agenda, even in Nepal. He argues that “minimum wage” in idealism tries to uplift the living standard of poorer classes in society. However, in reality it actually hurts the poorer classes, because minimum wage increases the cost of production for a producer. The producer then has to lay off the workers to decrease its cost. As such what was seen as a way of helping the poor ultimately hurts them.
Hazlitt furthers criticises many policies that seem noble in political eyes but do not make economic sense. When the policies are not economically viable, no matter how much benevolent they seem, they will decrease the economic dividends a nation derives from a free functioning market. He makes an strong case against protectionism, taxation, subsidising certain industries at the expense of another, etc.
This book is an influential criticism against some of the intriguing fallacies in Political Economy. However, the book lacks somewhere in providing policy measures for certain economic challenges like depression, controlling inflation, or social challenges like distributive justice. This doesn’t necessarily undermine the value of “Economics in One Lesson.” This book does more than merely point to solutions of the economic challenges; it helps us understand the multidimensional phenomenon that “market” is. This book explains, eloquently, how any form of government intervention has counter-productive effects in a market economy, no matter the intentions. Often times, the unintended consequences outweigh the intended benefits.
For a country, where economic development has been sluggish at best, and socialist policies are taken as virtues to development rather than stumbling blocks towards free functioning of an efficient market, this book is a great read.
Sovit Subedi is a research intern at Samriddhi. He graduated from University of Pune with a Bachelors Degree in Economics. His interests are in entrepreneurship, strategy and development.