Who Was Milton Friedman?

Published on New York Review of Books, by Paul Krugman, February 15, 2007.

The history of economic thought in the twentieth century is a bit like the history of Christianity in the sixteenth century. Until John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936, economics’ at least in the English-speaking world – was completely dominated by free-market orthodoxy. Heresies would occasionally pop up, but they were always suppressed. Classical economics, wrote Keynes in 1936, “conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain.” And classical economics said that the answer to almost all problems was to let the forces of supply and demand do their job.

But classical economics offered neither explanations nor solutions for the Great Depression …

… Milton Friedman played three roles in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. There was Friedman the economist’s economist, who wrote technical, more or less apolitical analyses of consumer behavior and inflation. There was Friedman the policy entrepreneur, who spent decades campaigning on behalf of the policy known as monetarism finally seeing the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England adopt his doctrine at the end of the 1970s, only to abandon it as unworkable a few years later. Finally, there was Friedman the ideologue, the great popularizer of free-market doctrine.

Did the same man play all these roles? Yes and no. All three roles were informed by Friedman’s faith in the classical verities of free-market economics. Moreover, Friedman’s effectiveness as a popularizer and propagandist rested in part on his well-deserved reputation as a profound economic theorist. But there’s an important difference between the rigor of his work as a professional economist and the looser, sometimes questionable logic of his pronouncements as a public intellectual. While Friedman’s theoretical work is universally admired by professional economists, there’s much more ambivalence about his policy pronouncements and especially his popularizing. And it must be said that there were some serious questions about his intellectual honesty when he was speaking to the mass public …

… In his 1965 review of Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History, the late Yale economist and Nobel laureate James Tobin gently chided the authors for going too far. “Consider the following three propositions,” he wrote. “Money does not matter. It does too matter. Money is all that matters. It is all too easy to slip from the second proposition to the third.” And he added that “in their zeal and exuberance” Friedman and his followers had too often done just that.

A similar sequence seems to have happened in Milton Friedman’s advocacy of laissez-faire. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, there were many people saying that markets can never work. Friedman had the intellectual courage to say that markets can too work, and his showman’s flair combined with his ability to marshal evidence made him the best spokesman for the virtues of free markets since Adam Smith. But he slipped all too easily into claiming both that markets always work and that only markets work. It’s extremely hard to find cases in which Friedman acknowledged the possibility that markets could go wrong, or that government intervention could serve a useful purpose.

Friedman’s laissez-faire absolutism contributed to an intellectual climate in which faith in markets and disdain for government often trumps the evidence. Developing countries rushed to open up their capital markets, despite warnings that this might expose them to financial crises; then, when the crises duly arrived, many observers blamed the countries’ governments, not the instability of international capital flows. Electricity deregulation proceeded despite clear warnings that monopoly power might be a problem; in fact, even as the California electricity crisis was happening, most commentators dismissed concerns about price-rigging as wild conspiracy theories. Conservatives continue to insist that the free market is the answer to the health care crisis, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

What’s odd about Friedman’s absolutism on the virtues of markets and the vices of government is that in his work as an economist’s economist he was actually a model of restraint. As I pointed out earlier, he made great contributions to economic theory by emphasizing the role of individual rationality – but unlike some of his colleagues, he knew where to stop. Why didn’t he exhibit the same restraint in his role as a public intellectual?

The answer, I suspect, is that he got caught up in an essentially political role. Milton Friedman the great economist could and did acknowledge ambiguity. But Milton Friedman the great champion of free markets was expected to preach the true faith, not give voice to doubts. And he ended up playing the role his followers expected. As a result, over time the refreshing iconoclasm of his early career hardened into a rigid defense of what had become the new orthodoxy.

In the long run, great men are remembered for their strengths, not their weaknesses, and Milton Friedman was a very great man indeed – a man of intellectual courage who was one of the most important economic thinkers of all time, and possibly the most brilliant communicator of economic ideas to the general public that ever lived. But there’s a good case for arguing that Friedmanism, in the end, went too far, both as a doctrine and in its practical applications. When Friedman was beginning his career as a public intellectual, the times were ripe for a counterreformation against Keynesianism and all that went with it. But what the world needs now, I’d argue, is a counter-counterreformation. (full huge long text).

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