from Gavin Putland:
All the way with Hazlitt - as far as he goes - On Line Opinion - 25/1/2012.
That may explain my mostly sympathetic reaction to a book much admired by advocates of free markets and small government: Economics in One Lesson (1946; revised 1978) by Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993). ...
That brings us to the other category of "means of production" -- assets that can't be produced or reproduced by competitors. Georgists contend that the market values of such assets, being publicly created, are the proper source of public revenue. The most important example is land, whose value can be tapped by means of rates, "land tax" and "capital gains" tax.
Hazlitt doesn't have "land" in the index.
In three places in the text (ss. 11.4, 15.2 and 16.2), he lists the factors of production as land, labour and capital, but doesn't distinguish between them for purposes of argument. In s.16.2 he also mentions the "poorest land", "least competent farmers" (labour) and "poorest equipment" (capital), but again doesn't distinguish further.
Similarly in the chapter on credit, he doesn't care whether borrowed funds are spent on farms (land) or tractors (capital).
In s.15.2 he adds that for an economy in "equilibrium", these factors are limited "at any moment", thus glossing over the fact that the supply of capital can build up or decay. Although Hazlitt is usually said to be of the Austrian school, this snapshot view of "equilibrium" is neoclassical, not Austrian; it was pioneered by J.B. Clark for the purpose of making capital look like land, so that land could be called a form of capital. Hazlitt includes Clark in his recommended reading list.
Earlier (s.6.2), Hazlitt cites the "limited" supply of capital as an argument against government-guaranteed home mortgages, claiming that they cause "oversupply of houses as compared with other things" -- not that they pump up land prices.
But he mentions the need for capital accumulation elsewhere, especially in the chapter on saving, where his examples of "capital" include schools, colleges, churches, libraries, hospitals, private homes, and "the most wonderfully equipped factory", all of which include land components. This conflation of capital and land is neoclassical.
In contrast, Austrian economists emphasize that capital, unlike land, must be constantly renewed, that its life cycle may be long or short, and that loose monetary policy causes overinvestment in long-life capital, whose value then collapses, contributing to recessions.
Meanwhile Georgists notice that recessions follow bursting "property bubbles", which are really land bubbles because land prices, unlike prices of buildings (prime examples of "long-life capital"), are not constrained by construction costs.
Hazlitt's failure to make these distinctions may explain why his explanation for depressions (s.23.5) is so vague: "the real causes, most of the time, are maladjustments within the wage-cost-price structure... At some point these maladjustments have removed the incentive to produce, or have made it actually impossible for production to continue... Not until these maladjustments are corrected can full production and employment be resumed." All clear now?
Those who call themselves free-traders too often fail to apply their own standards to trade within their own countries. Witness those misnamed "free trade agreements" in which each country promises to impose the other's monopolies on its own citizens.
Hazlitt falls into this error in chapter 4, where he considers an extra bridge between Easton and Weston and declares that "For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers." Not necessarily, because any such bridge will lower barriers to trade between Easton and Weston, especially the indispensable trade between employers and employees.
The benefit of the additional trade, net of any bridge tolls, will be shown in prices of access to locations served by the bridge -- in other words, land values. If the benefit exceeds the cost, it will be possible to cover the cost by clawing back a sufficient fraction of the uplift in land values, in which case the cost, although clawed back through the tax system, will not be "taken away from the taxpayers" but will be part of the new value created by the bridge.
The rest of that new value will be a net windfall to the property owners.
Hazlitt then turns to the Norris Dam (a New Deal project) and rubbishes the claim that "private capital could not have built it", because it was indeed built by private capital "expropriated in taxes... taken from people all over the country", causing the loss of "the private power plants, the private homes, the typewriters and television sets" that the expropriated funds might otherwise have bought. Thus the people of one district got richer at the expense of the rest of the country.
But it didn't have to be done that way. The earlier Don Pedro dam (completed 1923) was built by two Californian irrigation districts and financed entirely by local land-value taxes. The affected land owners were fiercely in favour of it because they knew the increase in their land values would outweigh the taxes. Even if the land-value taxes had been imposed by a higher level of government, the financing of the dam would still have been local, because only the local land values would have been affected by it. Private capital did not build it, because the uplift in land values that paid for it would not have occurred without it. Private agencies could not have organized it, because they would have had no way of tapping the uplifts in land values.
With an eye to current debates, I should conclude by praising Hazlitt for an insight that his latter-day admirers have ignored.
In explaining why "Taxes Discourage Production" (chapter 5), he says:
"When a corporation loses a hundred cents of every dollar it loses, and is permitted to keep only 52 cents of every dollar it gains, and when it cannot adequately offset its years of losses against its years of gains, its policies are affected." If individual investors "lose the whole dollar when they lose, but can keep only a fraction of it when they win," they are less likely to take risks.
The entire article is worth your time.