Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

The Assault on Saving

Contents
 

From time immemorial proverbial wisdom has taught the virtues of saving, and warned against the consequences of prodigality and waste. This proverbial wisdom has reflected the common ethical as well as the merely prudential judgments of mankind. But there have always been squanderers, and there have apparently always been theorists to rationalize their squandering.

The classical economists, refuting the fallacies of their own day, showed that the saving policy that was in the best interests of the individual was also in the best interests of the nation. They showed that the rational saver, in ma king provision for his future, was not hurting, but helping, the whole community. But today the ancient virtue of thrift, as well as its defense by the classical economists, is once more under attack, for allegedly new reasons, while the opposite doctrine of spending is in fashion.

In order to make the fundamental issue as clear as possible, we cannot do better, I think, than to start with the classic example used by Bastiat. Let us imagine two brothers, then, one a spendthrift and the other a prudent man, each of whom has inherited a sum to yield him an income of $50,000 a year. We shall disregard the income tax, and the question whether both brothers really ought to work for a living or give most of their income to charity, because such questions are irrelevant to our present purpose.

Alvin, then, the first brother, is a lavish spender. He spends not only by temperament, but on principle. He is a disciple (to go no further back) of Rodbertus, who declared in the middle of the nineteenth century that capitalists “must expend their income to the last penny in comforts and luxuries,” for if they “determine to save... goods accumulate, and part of the workmen will have no work.”[*] Alvin is always seen at the night clubs; he tips handsomely; he maintains a pretentious establishment, with plenty of servants; he has a couple of chauffeurs, and doesn’t stint himself in the number of cars he owns; he keeps a racing stable; he runs a yacht; he travels; he loads his wife down with diamond bracelets and fur coats; he gives expensive and useless presents to his friends.

To do all this he has to dig into his capital. But what of it? If saving is a sin, dissaving must be a virtue; and in any case he is simply making up for the harm being done by the saving of his pinchpenny brother Benjamin.

It need hardly be said that Alvin is a great favorite with the hat check girls, the waiters, the restaurateurs, the furriers, the jewelers, the luxury establishments of all kinds. They regard him as a public benefactor. Certainly it is obvious to everyone that he is giving employment and spreading his money around.

Compared with him brother Benjamin is much less popular. He is seldom seen at the jewelers, the furriers or the night clubs, and he does not call the head waiters by their first names. Whereas Alvin spends not only the full $50,000 income each year but is digging into capital besides, Benjamin lives much more modestly and spends only about $25,000 Obviously, think the people who see only what hits them in the eye, he is providing less than half as much employment as Alvin, and the other $25,000 is as useless as if it did not exist.

But let us see what Benjamin actually does with this other $25,000 He does not let it pile up in his pocketbook, his bureau drawers, or in his safe. He either deposits it in a bank or he invests it. If he puts it either into a commercial or a savings bank, the bank either lends it to going businesses on short term for working capital, or uses it to buy securities. In other words, Benjamin invests his money either directly or indirectly. But when money is invested it is used to buy or build capital goods—houses or office buildings or factories or ships or trucks or machines. Any one of these projects puts as much money into circulation and gives as much employment as the same amount of money spent directly on consumption.

“Saving,” in short, in the modem world, is only another form of spending. The usual difference is that the money is turned over to someone else to spend on means to increase production. So far as giving employment is concerned, Benjamin’s “saving” and spending combined give as much as Alvin’s spending alone, and put as much money in circulation. The chief difference is that the employment provided by Alvin’s spending can be seen by anyone with one eye; but it is necessary to look a little more carefully, and to think a moment, to recognize that every dollar of Benjamin’s saving gives as much employment as every dollar that Alvin throws around.

A dozen years roll by. Alvin is broke. He is no longer seen in the night clubs and at the fashionable shops; and those whom he formerly patronized, when they speak of him, refer to him as something of a fool. He writes begging letters to Benjamin. And Benjamin, who continues about the same ratio of spending to saving, not only provides more jobs than ever, because his income, through investment, has grown, but through his investment he has helped to provide better-paying and more productive jobs. His capital wealth and income are greater. He has, in brief, added to the nation’s productive capacity; Alvin has not.

Contents
 
* Karl Rodbertus, Overproduction and Crises (1850), p. 51.