Hazlitt on Thinking “Long and Wide”

One of the seminal texts in my economics self-education is Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics In One Lesson.”  The late journalist and economist was a master of distilling complex economic concepts into brilliantly clear principles that resonate today.  Early on in “Economics In One Lesson”, Hazlitt very succinctly lays out two such guiding lights that inform his study of specific economic issues, the twin mandates to:

  • Study economic policy in a LONGER context than the immediate outcome desired by the policymaker.
  • Study economic policy across a WIDER population than the immediately affected group.

In Hazlitt’s mind, the majority of failed policy decisions could be explained by the failure to do both of these things in sufficient depth.  As he puts it, all of economics education can essentially be reduced to one sentence:

“The art of economics consists in 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.”

In the defense domain, this simple but compelling logic also applies.  At the tactical level, the actions of the so-called “Strategic Corporal” can have outsize influence in the Information Age.  As ersatz policymakers, the corporal’s unit level leaders must constantly and carefully consider the orders and intent that they are feeding their troops in a far greater context than the dozen kilometers they are charged with patrolling.

What effect could the detention and questioning of a prominent local figure have on the mutual trust between the unit and the local populace?

What impact could a change in the “warning shot” policy have on the voter turnout in next month’s election?

Could the raid we have been planning have a negative effect on the unit whose area of responsibility is adjacent to ours?

All of these questions warrant generous consideration when one applies the Hazlitt model of “longer and wider” thinking.  At the operational level, history provides a multitude of disquieting examples where Hazlitt’s words of caution were not heeded.  Admiral Nimitz’s controversial decision to liberate Peleliu in the Pacific campaign of WWII is one such example.  Operating under a justifiable sense of operational freedom in the march to liberate the Philippines, Nimitz nonetheless failed to tie his campaign plan into progress of the larger strategic picture (longer), and into the decisions taking place in the campaign headquarters elsewhere in the area of operations (wider).  The result?  Figures as high as 100,000 primary, secondary, and tertiary casualties have been attributed to his impetuous choice.

This “echo effect” of narrow decision making is found at the strategic level as well, as in the case of President Johnson’s legendarily opportunistic yet short sighted and escalations in the Vietnam War.  As a survey of foreign policy experts and historians that the Atlantic assembled put it, “…as the country became more enmeshed in the war he was practically immune to information and opinion that contradicted his biases. He surrounded himself with supplicants like Walt Rostow who told him what he wanted to hear and got rid of those who offered a dissenting view (for example, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara).”  Johnson was so focused on the immediate that he became like a gambler on a losing streak, continually convinced that the next roll of the dice could reverse his steadily declining fortunes.

Johnson’s series of isolated (to him), yet compounding decisions are a classic example of what Hazlitt spoke of when he observed, “Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore.”  Put simply, de-contextualized decisions may have been conceived in a vacuum, but they live in the real world, where their badness only becomes more and more apparent!

For a critically thinking military leader, sometimes it pays to follow the admonition “don’t just do something, sit there.”  The time spent thinking, studying, and weighing courses of action are often worth the trade off in expediency later on.  Hazlitt would likely agree.





The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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