Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

How the Price System Works

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The whole argument of this book may be summed up in the statement that in studying the effects of any given economic proposal we must trace not merely the immediate results but the results in the long run, not merely the primary consequences but the secondary consequences, and not merely the effects on some special group but the effects on everyone. It follows that it is foolish and misleading to concentrate our attention merely on some special point—to examine, for example, merely what happens in one industry without considering what happens in all. But it is precisely from the persistent and lazy habit of thinking only of some particular industry or process in isolation that the major fallacies of economics stem. These fallacies pervade not merely the arguments of the hired spokesmen of special interests, but the arguments even of some economists who pass as profound.

It is on the fallacy of isolation, at bottom, that the “productionfor-use-and-not-for-profit” school is based, with its attack on the allegedly vicious “price system.” The problem of production, say the adherents of this school, is solved. (This resounding error, as we shall see, is also the starting point of most currency cranks and share-the-wealth charlatans.) The scientists, the efficiency experts, the engineers, the technicians, have solved it. They could turn out almost anything you cared to mention in huge and practically unlimited amounts. But, alas, the world is not ruled by the engineers, thinking only of production, but by the businessmen, thinking only of profit. The businessmen give their orders to the engineers, instead of vice versa. These businessmen will turn out any object as long as there is a profit in doing so, but the moment there is no longer a profit in making that article, the wicked businessmen will stop making it, though many people’s wants are unsatisfied, and the world is crying for more goods.

There are so many fallacies in this view that they cannot all be disentangled at once. But the central error, as we have hinted, comes from looking at only one industry, or even at several industries in turn, as if each of them existed in isolation. Each of them in fact exists in relation to all the others, and every important decision made in it is affected by and affects the decisions made in all the others.

We can understand this better if we understand the basic problem that business collectively has to solve. To simplify this as much as possible, let us consider the problem that confronts a Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. His wants at first seem endless. He is soaked with rain; he shivers from cold; he suffers from hunger and thirst. He needs everything: drinking water, food, a roof over his head, protection from animals, a fire, a soft place to lie down. It is impossible for him to satisfy all these needs at once; he has not the time, energy or resources. He must attend immediately to the most pressing need. He suffers most, say, from thirst. He hollows out a place in the sand to collect rain water, or builds some crude receptacle. When he has provided for only a small water supply, however, he must turn to finding food before he tries to improve this. He can try to fish; but to do this he needs either a hook and line, or a net, and he must set to work on these. But everything he does delays or prevents him from doing something else only a little less urgent. He is faced constantly by the problem of alternative applications of his time and labor.

A Swiss Family Robinson, perhaps, finds this problem a little easier to solve. It has more mouths to feed, but it also has more hands to work for them. It can practice division and specialization of labor. The father hunts; the mother prepares the food; the children collect firewood. But even the family cannot afford to have one member of it doing endlessly the same thing, regardless of the relative urgency of the common need he supplies and the urgency of other needs still unfilled. When the children have gathered a certain pile of firewood, they cannot be used simply to increase the pile. It is soon time for one of them to be sent, say, for more water. The family too has the constant problem of choosing among alternative applications of labor, and, if it is lucky enough to have acquired guns, fishing tackle, a boat, axes, saws and so on, of choosing among alternative applications of labor and capital. It would be considered unspeakably silly for the wood-gathering member of the family to complain that they could gather more firewood if his brother helped him all day, instead of getting the fish that were needed for the family dinner. It is recognized clearly in the case of an isolated individual or family that one occupation can expand only at the expense of all other occupations.

Elementary illustrations like this are sometimes ridiculed as “Crusoe economics.” Unfortunately, they are ridiculed most by those who most need them, who fail to understand the particular principle illustrated even in this simple form, or who lose track of that principle completely when they come to examine the bewildering complications of a great modern economic society.

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