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Institutionalizing Friedman

August 21st, 2008 · 10 Comments

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.”

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg N. // Aug 21, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Friedman is arguably best known for his “Free to Choose” video series. A significant portion of that series is the roundtable debate between market advocates and advocates of intervention.

    Further, Friedman never seemed afraid to tangle with an intellectual opponent. Assuming the Institute’s founders want to act consistent with Friedman’s spirit, it’s ridiculous to pretend that the Institute named for him wouldn’t “have room for true academic debate.”

  • 2 Micha Ghertner // Aug 21, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    “In reality, of course, I’d never dream of denying that market failures exist and merit study. Thomas Frank draws a salary, after all.”

    I yelled “Zing!” out loud at my computer while reading this line. ZOL?

  • 3 Greg N. // Aug 21, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I yelled, “Huzzah!” thrice.

  • 4 mds // Aug 22, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Assuming the Institute’s founders want to act consistent with Friedman’s spirit, it’s ridiculous to pretend that the Institute named for him wouldn’t “have room for true academic debate.”

    Yeah, uh, can anyone find the logical loophole here?

    Hint: the Ludwig von Mises Institute is stuffed with social conservatives who endorse militant restrictions on immigration.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Aug 23, 2008 at 3:29 am

    The LvMI is also a crank outfit out in assfuck Alabama somewhere, not a division of the University of Chicago.

  • 6 Greg N. // Aug 23, 2008 at 11:22 am

    1. I’m not sure what you’ve pointed out is a “logical loophole.” Note the word “Assuming.” Sure, it’s possible that these people just want to use Milton Friedman’s name to promote an ideology inconsistent with Friedman’s. But it’s unlikely. Either way, I think the conclusion follows from the premise (which, again, could be false, but I doubt it).

    2. Friedman is much more famous than Mises, and, as far as economics scholarship – like JS notes – Chicago is much more noteworthy than Auburn, AL. Hence, the folks at the Friedman Institute will be much less likely to mess with Friedman’s legacy than Rockwell, et.al. have with Mises’, if only because they’re more likely to be caught doing it, and more (and more important) people will care if they do.

    3. This one isn’t related to your point, but FWIW, Mises really wasn’t interested in open dialogue and debate with his intellectual opponents.

  • 7 mds // Aug 24, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I guess I remain skeptical that it will avoid becoming another “welfare for conservatives” hothouse institution, since there’s already a rather “Friedmanian” institution at the U of C that nonetheless allows give-and-take with intellectual opponents: the Economics Department. Last I checked, regular U of C faculty weren’t barred from researching this sort of thing already. I’d actually disapprove of the other institutes listed, whether Frank does or not, since I’m not comfortable with university institutes whose policy conclusions are almost certainly predetermined by their founding premises. For instance, unlike Mr. Sanchez, the Friedman Institute at large would plausibly remain mystified by Mr. Frank’s continued employment, since they are likely to be blind to the concept of market failure. Remember “better an unregulated monopoly than a regulated monopoly”?

    Also, please note that “market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives” is not the same thing as “market solutions to social problems.” Friedman was no Hayek, after all. Consider that the “unethical” nature of Social Security makes it ill-conceived regardless of whether it’s a working solution to a social problem or not.

  • 8 Phoenician in a time of Romans // Aug 24, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Milton Friedman has never won a Nobel Prize in Economics. There is no Nobel Prize in Economics.

    The prize you are talking about, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was instituted by the Swedish Central Bank and deliberately conflated with the Nobel Prizes to make economics look like a science rather than a combination of science and ideology. The bias in awarding these prizes has been noted (which is great, if you’re a Chicago School economist).

    I’ve often considered whether George Soros might consider funding the George Soros Prize in Selfserving Bullshit in Memory of Alfred Nobel to get the point across. A Nobel Prize in Bullshit would come in very handy (for example, back in 2003, it would be a tossup between George Bush and Comical Ali).

  • 9 Micha Ghertner // Aug 27, 2008 at 1:06 am

    the Friedman Institute at large would plausibly remain mystified by Mr. Frank’s continued employment, since they are likely to be blind to the concept of market failure. Remember “better an unregulated monopoly than a regulated monopoly”?

    Huh? I don’t get this. One can consistently believe that it is better for certain firms to be unregulated monopolies than regulated monopolies and still believe in the concept of market failure too. To do so, one need only judge the likelihood and outcome of government failure (i.e. regulatory capture) as worse than the disease it was meant to be curing.

    Tyler Cowen recently wrote a NYTimes magazine piece arguing in favor of deregulating water companies in developing countries on the grounds than an unregulated monopoly would be less bad than what they currently have. Cowen is certainly not blind to the concept of market failure in this instance.

  • 10 Micha Ghertner // Aug 27, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Milton Friedman has never won a Nobel Prize in Economics.

    If there was an award for whiny nitpicking, the heterodox “post-autistic” economics movement would win every year.

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