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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Introducing MILopoly

I am excited to announce the arrival of a project I have long aspired to produce.  Today marks the birth of a blog about the intersection of economics and defense, called “MILopoly.”  I am a passionate learner about these topics, and through my academic study of both domains I have found a number of points of convergence which I have wanted to explore further.  MILopoly gives me the chance to explore these topics, enhance my knowledge, and invite the reader along for the journey.

I hope to use concepts like elasticity of demand to explain how, for example, the global market for inexpensive small arms like the AK-47  remains steady despite price fluctuations.  Alternatively, I might take a more straightforward historical approach to explain John Maynard Keynes‘ influence on the outcome of and recovery from World War II.  Finally, you might see MILopoly delve into the increasingly popular field of behavioral economics to explore just what exactly it might have to do with the Army Operating Concept of “Winning in a Complex World.”

Look for these topics and more over the next few weeks and months.  If interest exists, I am excited about the idea of opening MILopoly up to guest contributors as well.  Thanks very much for your interest, and I look forward to expanding our understanding together.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: 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.

About

MILopoly is a synthesis of two passions: Economics and Defense.  By analyzing concepts from these domains, I hope to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of each.

I am a U.S. Army officer currently serving at the Service Component Command level, whose writing has appeared in ARMY magazine, Cicero, the Daily Beast, and Armed Forces Journal, among other places.  I hold Masters Degrees in International Relations, National Security and Strategic Studies, and Management.  I am a proud founding member of the Military Writers Guild, a group of defense professionals dedicated to advancing the profession through critical thinking expressed via the written word.

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.

Twitter: @johnmcraeii