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Capturing the Friedman

November 17th, 2006 · No Comments

Ezra links to a critical survey in The Guardian of the late Milton Friedman’s policy achievements—one that appeared so quickly that I have to assume, like obituaries, it had been written well in advance, just waiting for the balding-grey eminence of free-market economics to expire. It’s a sobering tonic insofar as its a reminder of how far we have left to go. But the best illustration of how utterly it misses the mark is provided by a sneering lefty commenter who finds absurd the notion that Friedman wrote, as a previous commenter had suggested, “against the wind.”

Sure, Friedman’s strict monetarism is out of favor. Sure, we don’t have school vouchers nationwide yet—though many other counries, and a growing number of states, do. But the intellectual climate has changed sufficiently dramatically that characterizing Friedman’s views as iconoclastic—which they absolutely were when he began his public career&mdahs;now seems not only strange but risible. As Keynes, the man whose ideas Friedman did so much to combat, famously wrote:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

That’s Friedman’s great legacy. Market interventions that would have been “common sense” three decades ago, “common sense” now regards as lunacy, if they’re even broached in mainstream debate. In both cases, “common sense” is not at all what’s just obvious to ordinary reason in a vacuum, but the distillation of cogent theory. Friedman helped resurrect the idea that, as another champion of “common sense” put it, “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” Even those rushing to pile vituperation on his grave live in an intellectual world he did a great deal to shape. I’m not a religious man, but I enjoy the thought of Milton, eyes characteristically twinkling, having a last wry smile at that.

Tags: Economics