ReadingRoom

When an MP received a book in a brown paper bag

Labour MP Deborah Russell tweeted last week that the Taxpayers Union had sent her a book on economics endorsed by Ayn Rand. We asked her to review the thing.

The Taxpayers’ Union sent me a book, Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993), a libertarian philosopher, economist, and journalist. The book was first published in 1946. ‘We hope this classic will be read and enjoyed by you and your staff in the interests of maintaining economic literacy and effectively evaluating policies put before the House,’ wrote the union’s comms guy Louis Houlbrooke in an accompanying letter. He added that every Member of Parliament had been sent this ‘educational resource’ but when I asked my colleagues who else had received it, some hadn’t seen it. Perhaps the anonymous brown paper parcel it came in looked too suspicious.

It opens with the gripping line, ‘Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man.’ There is just one simple way to do economics well, and that’s to make sure that as well as considering short-term outcomes, all long-term consequences are properly taken account of as well. In fact, if we put all the short and long-term consequences into our equations properly, then we’ll necessarily uncover the truth through economics. All else is likely to be bedevilled by fallacies.

But which factors go into the equation? And this is where Hazlitt is somewhat… blinkered. Example: his claim about what people do when rents are too high. ‘If landlords are allowed to raise rents to reflect … the true conditions of supply and demand,’ he writes, ‘individual tenants will economise by taking less space.’

If someone is living in a car, how much ‘less space’ can they consume? And does it even matter if tenants end up occupying no space whatsoever? Hazlitt seems not to care about such niceties.

In fact, human beings don’t seem to feature at all in his equations. The economic outcome when everything is tickety-boo is all that matters. Hazlitt, on the real cause of unemployment: ‘Excessive union wage-rates, minimum wage laws, excessive and prolonged unemployment insurance, and overgenerous relief payments.’ Never mind that they might ensure people can at least feed their children, or that much historical evidence contradicts him, such as mass unemployment and deprivation in the Great Depression having been directly caused by the unwinding of a market-driven speculative bubble.

This exclusion of human concerns, like having food to eat and a place to sleep, is the problem that besets this text. Hazlitt claims to be rational and scientific, yet he sets the agenda and frames the debate to exclude any ideas he doesn’t like or thinks unimportant. Private market is good, government intervention is bad, and the world would be better off with governments getting out of the way. A shame then, that he did not live to see the tech boom, coming off the back of the Apollo programme and computing research done in state-funded universities.

But, gentle reader, the biggest fault I found in the book was the near total absence of women. I counted nine uses of the word ‘women’. It appeared six times in the phrase, ‘men and women’ and once in a references to ‘men’s and women’s overcoats’. Other than that, Hazlitt references some old legislation that forbade women to take jobs, and notes the wealth of the American economy, as well as eliminating child labour, also made it ‘unnecessary for millions of women to take jobs’.

He points out a manufacturer who earns greater profits may now buy jewellery and furs for his wife which would create jobs indirectly, and in discussing exchange rates, he says an American exporter can’t use British pounds to buy his wife’s clothes. A mother who prepares food for a family makes a brief appearance on page 105, a wife and hat-check girls figure in a profligate man’s expenditure on page 178, and in the last nod to women that I could find in the book, there’s a sly reference to the ‘oldest profession in the world’ on page 197, but only insofar as a rise in men’s chastity might cause their demise. One female coded name is included in a list of people who are affected by changes in the economy: Tom Jones and Ted Brown get new jobs, and Daisy Miller can buy a coat.

Tellingly, the women in Hazlitt’s book are never economic agents in their own right, unlike men who function as manufacturers, consumers, farmers, exporters, taxpayers, soldiers, public servants: in short, if there’s an active role to be filled, it is performed by men.

Hazlitt has no concept of the work that women do, either in the paid economy or the unpaid economy. Money is the only measure of value, and that means women’s unpaid work is simply not there.

Well, the book was published a long time ago. But by the time Hazlitt published his third edition, in 1979, he’d been able to update the book by incorporating television into his examples. But not women. The exclusion of women and women’s work is perhaps the greatest economic fallacy of all.

And this is the book the Taxpayers’ Union thinks will be a valuable educational resource for MPs. They could claim the book is very much a product of its time. To which I can only say, ‘Indeed.’

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