Thomas Frank unleashes a volley of overstuffed, Laphamesque prose to kvetch about the creation of a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. Frank graciously allows that, since we’ve got K-Mart chairs of marketing, it might not be totally beyond the pale for a school to similarly honor a Nobel Prize–winning former professor. But he chafes at the center’s mission statement, which stipulates that its research program will:
reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including his . . . advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.
Apparently, this proves that the center will be an ideologically driven hack shop. This may seem a little premature, as Frank notes the MFI hasn’t actually begun operating yet. But making his attack now does give Frank the opportunity to cast vague aspersions without actually having to directly impugn any well-regarded scholars by name, which would probably come across as less convincing. Still, it’s an odd inference: Does Frank (or anyone?) think that looking for market solutions to social problems is an unworthy research program? Suppose an institution launched a Robert Hale Center to investigate the hidden coercive effects of market institutions, or a Pigou Institute devoted to studying instances of market faillure. Surely Frank would—correctly—dub anyone who objected to these programs a rigid ideologue. In reality, of course, I’d never dream of denying that market failures exist and merit study. Thomas Frank draws a salary, after all.
Incidentally, it takes a bit of chutzpah to roll out the hoary line about free-market economic thought as an “orthodoxy” (you know, back in the 19th century) while using the headline “We’re Not All Friedmanites Now”—indirectly reminding us how much more recently Keynesian ideas enjoyed a near hegemony. The point, of course, essentially the same as it is when conservatives bitch about liberal academia: It’s inconvenient when large numbers of highly educated, respected specialists hold views that run contrary to your preferred political agenda. And since Frank is in no position to actually debate economics with Gary Becker (just as, naturally, I’d expect to get flattened in a one-on-one with, say, Paul Krugman) you need some other account of the prevalence of their views—in this instance, the malign influence of funders combined with some kind of tribal groupthink.
I notice, incidentally, that my old friend Todd Seavy goes on a tear against Frank today as well. This seems about right:
Virtually every column he writes takes one of two juvenile forms: either he (1) accuses conservatives of deliberately harming people or screwing things up to advance their sinister agenda or, even more annoyingly, (2) picks some bizarre boondoggle associated with Republican politicians but in no logical way an outgrowth of conservative (and certainly not free-market) ideology (waste and ineptitude at the Department of Labor, in one recent column), then claims, like a child yelling “Tag! You’re it!” that since the boondoggle is nominally “conservative” (or in the case of the Department of Labor, was merely spoken of in a positive way once by religious-right activist Paul Weyrich), said boondoggle is not merely conservative but in fact a perfect representation of conservatism at its best, thus proving all conservatives (like me) to be evil morons (like Thomas Frank).
Todd also suggests, not implausibly, that the genuinely sinister selfish agenda here may be The Wall Street Journal‘s, as it’s probably a net benefit to conservatives if Frank becomes a high-profile representative of “the left.”