Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993) is a book that taught supporters of free market economics. It is a brilliant and pithy work first published in 1946, at a time of rampant statism all over the world. It taught millions about the bad consequences of putting government in charge of economic life. College students across America and the world still use it and learn from it. It may be the most popular economics text ever written.
Hazlitt’s lesson is simple but profound: “The art of economics consists of 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.”
Hazlitt was a journalist, literary critic, economist, and philosopher who wrote on economic affairs for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, among many other publications. He was one of the most brilliant public intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his final years, he often expressed surprise that Economics in One Lesson had become his most enduring contribution. He wrote it to expose the popular fallacies of its day. He did not know that those fallacies would be government policy for the duration of the twentieth century and now.
The following is a summary of Hazlitt’s statement on the cause and cure of inflation:
1. Inflation is an increase in the quantity of money and credit. Its chief consequence is soaring prices. Therefore inflation—if we misuse the term to mean the rising prices themselves—is caused solely by printing more money. For this the government’s monetary policies are entirely responsible.
2. The most frequent reason for printing more money is the existence of an unbalanced budget. Unbalanced budgets are caused by extravagant expenditures which the government is unwilling or unable to pay for by raising corresponding tax revenues. The excessive expenditures are mainly the result of government efforts to redistribute wealth and income—in short, to force the productive to support the unproductive. This erodes the working incentives of both the productive and the unproductive.
3. The causes of inflation are not, as so often said, “multiple and complex,” but simply the result of printing too much money. There is no such thing as “cost-push” inflation. If, without an increase in the stock of money, wage or other costs are forced up, and producers try to pass these costs along by raising their selling prices, most of them will merely sell fewer goods. The result will be reduced output and loss of jobs. Higher costs can only be passed along in higher selling prices when consumers have more money to pay the higher prices.
4. Price controls cannot stop or slow down inflation. They always do harm. Price controls simply squeeze or wipe out profit margins, disrupt production, and lead to bottlenecks and shortages. All government price and wage control, or even “monitoring,” is merely an attempt by the politicians to shift the blame for inflation on to producers and sellers instead of their own monetary policies.
5. Prolonged inflation never “stimulates” the economy. On the contrary, it unbalances, disrupts, and misdirects production and employment. Unemployment is mainly caused by excessive wage rates in some industries, brought about either by extortionate union demands, by minimum wage laws (which keep teenagers and the unskilled out of jobs), or by prolonged and over-generous unemployment insurance.
6. To avoid irreparable damage, the budget must be balanced at the earliest possible moment, and not in some sweet by-and-by. Balance must be brought about by slashing reckless spending, and not by increasing a tax burden that is already undermining incentives and production.