Can a public intellectual try to develop original insights, besides popularizing the ideas he holds dear? Paul Krugman recently lambasted Henry Hazlitt, who “has been wrong about everything for more than 80 years, and is still regarded as a guru”. Krugman and Hazlitt share a prominent status as public intellectuals, and the very same megaphone: the New York Times (see here a nice old comment by the New York Sun editors on this very occurence). But they are “public intellectuals” in a thoroughly different way: Krugman built his reputation as a spokesperson for contemporary liberalism on his academic credentials. Krugman somehow bought his ticket to the public debate by being an economist acclaimed by the economic profession. Hazlitt, on the other hand, was a self-made intellectual, who started writing journalism when he was still a teenager.

I recently came across a very interesting paper by Pete Boettke, in which he shows how Hazlitt did more than just keeping the torch of orthodox economics alive in very dark times. For Boettke, Hazlitt

occupied a unique position in mid-20th century intellectual life in the US as a public intellectual attempting to contribute to scientific economics consisted of not just pointing to his prominent position in the world of journalism both as a literary critic and more importantly as an economist but more importantly for our purposes to the attention his written work commanded in the specialized professional journals in economics and philosophy, as well as the active correspondence he engaged in throughout his life. The company Hazlitt kept was not just that of the New York intelligentsia, but included many of the leading minds in the social sciences during his lifetime.

If you’re fascinated by the mysterious way in which the conveyor belt of public opinion works, Boettke’s paper would be a very interesting read. I instinctively love Hazlitt (basically, for the very reasons the Paul Krugmans of this world despise him) but I shall confess I’ve basically read just Economics in One Lesson and a few articles I stumbled upon on line. The Henry Hazlitt archives are very well worth a visit: there you can find also Hazlitt’s unpublished autobiography (“My Life and Conclusions”), also referenced by Professor Boettke.

In a previous post, I pointed out a very interesting passage in George H Smith’s The System of Liberty, on the idea that “freedom could not be defended adequately from a single, narrow point of view and that an interdisciplinary approach was essential to the survival of liberalism”.

As he worked out of modern academia, with its growing pressure towards an ever narrower specialization, Hazlitt could let his speculative faculties sail upon wider seas. Boettke gives a sense of the vastness of Hazlitt’s contributions, which ranged from monetary policy to ethics. Hazlitt’s story as an intellectual who emerged bottom up from the market for ideas, rather than being able to claim strong academic credentials first, is fascinating – and looks rather exotic, for us living in 2013. The blogosphere is allowing for many genius dilettantes to enter the public discussion, but I can’t really think of anyone that even vaguely resembles Hazlitt as portrayed by Boettke. I suppose that it takes a devotion both to economic research and a particular set of ideas that it is very rare to find, among journalists, professional economists and bloggers alike.