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Krugman on Friedman

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A thoughtful essay by Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books titled,”Who Was Milton Friedman?” This excerpt gives a sense of the piece:

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?….

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.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19857

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