A Word from the Opposition

Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy. Or maybe a Democratic political consultant now---I didn't get an updated blurb. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

So here’s my dilemma: how do I, a non-classical liberal, a philosopher with very little in the way of economics background, an academic-turned (of all things)-Democratic political consultant go about writing a tribute to Milton Friedman? On an anarcho-capitalist blog with a readership far more knowledgeable about Dr. Friedman’s writings than I, no less. The answer: I don’t. Instead, I’m going to lament the extent to which Milton Friedman has made my own life far more difficult.

You see, back in the 1960s, we liberals were completely ascendant. Conservatives had, by and large, been banished to the John Bircher and white sheet wearing types. The New Deal had given way to the Great Society; egalitarianism and civil rights were breaking out everywhere; hell, even when the Republicans managed to win the Presidency, they did so by electing a wage-and-price-control Keynesian liberal. Yes, Conservatives were banished for good.

Except for some Senator out in Arizona. A Governor in California. And, of course, a good portion of the economics department at Chicago, where Milton Friedman was busy creating a community of economists who (in one of life’s little ironies) celebrated their many contributions to free market economics with lots of trips to Sweden. Oh, and somewhere along the way, he was largely responsible for breathing new life into the conservative movement.

How did this one man manage to rescue an entire political movement? We could look to his own words, but he, in his self-effacing style, refused to take credit, claiming in the preface to the 1982 edition of Capitalism and Freedom books such as his had no real effect on an intellectual climate that shifted from a thorough rejection of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to a warm embrace of the (basically identical platform of) Ronald Reagan in 1980. Friedman’s claim, rather, is that the clear failure of Russia, the dismal economic situation in Great Britain, whose socialism Americans had largely copied, and the rampant inflation and high taxes in the United States resulted in a population that saw the light of fiscal conservatism, the truth of small government, the very power of libertarianism.

I say not so fast. Dr. Friedman might like to blame conservatism on an enlightened American public, but he can’t get off the hook quite that easily. You see, things had sucked in the world before. There’d been this whole Depression thing in Friedman’s own youth. Plus lots more small-d depressions at various intervals since…well, pretty much since the beginning of modern economies. But here’s the thing. When those depressions hit countries where ordinary citizens had some say in the general response, that response, pretty much without fail, had always been something like, “This sucks. The government needs to fix it.” But in 1981, Ronald Reagan could say, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and the public said, “Hell, yeah.” Dr. Friedman asks us to believe that, magically, after this economic crisis, people suddenly understood that their problems couldn’t be solved by government, that it was the underlying structure of our society – our most basic assumptions – that really were the problem. This time, unlike any other period in history, people just grasped the problem.

I’m not buying it. Here’s what I think really happened. I think that Milton Friedman, with his wit and affability, took a lot of very difficult economic principles and explained them for intelligent laypersons. And not only did he explain those principles, he did such a damn good job of presenting his case that he convinced a whole lot of people. Indeed, he was so very good at explaining his economic theories that he was soon doing so on television. On PBS, for chrissakes. Talk about letting the wolf among the hens. Plus the man had a regular Newsweek column. That’s right. A Nobel Laureate writing for the stiffs who read Newsweek. And doing it well enough to be allowed to continue for 18 years. His Capitalism and Freedom has over half a million English copies in print, a number that pales in comparison to his and Rose’s Free to Choose.

Let’s face it. Without Milton Friedman, we’d have one political party full of liberals and another political party full of, well, liberals. Instead, we liberals have to engage with a party that (when it takes time out from starting reckless wars and gay bashing) actually presents some real arguments against many of our cherished social programs. Yes, Milton Friedman forces liberals to ask the question we don’t want to ask: does any of the crap we propose actually work? Even worse, he gives us reason to think that the answer is, well, no.

Some liberals respond by trying to minimize Friedman’s influence. The Guardian, for instance, characterized Friedman as a good economist whose ideas were a failure as public policy. And, by one yardstick, that characterization is true. Consider Friedman’s (partial) list of things that government is not justified in doing:

  1. Parity price support programs for agriculture.
  2. Tariffs on imports or restrictions on exports.
  3. Governmental control of output.
  4. Rent control, or more general wage-and-price controls.
  5. Legal minimum wage rates, or legal maximum prices.
  6. Detailed regulation of industries.
  7. Control of radio and television by the FCC.
  8. Social Security.
  9. Occupational licensing.
  10. Public housing programs and subsidized residency programs.
  11. Military conscription.
  12. Funding national parks.
  13. Legal prohibition on private mail services.
  14. Publicly owned and operated toll roads.

Despite advising two Presidents and one Presidential candidate, the U.S. still engages in 13 of the 14 items on the list. (Though Friedman’s one outright success, the elimination of military conscription, is no small accomplishment, especially for all of us males who are happy not being in Iraq right now.) As for the rest, well, minimum wage will likely increase again within the next few months; agricultural subsidies won’t end as long as Presidential primaries begin in Iowa; the reputedly-conservative George W. Bush slapped on steel tariffs when doing so was politically convenient; even discussing reforming Social Security got Republicans booted from Congress; the AMA is going nowhere…I could go on, but you get the point.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s unfair to judge Milton Friedman by how many of his proposals came to pass during his lifetime. After all, when Friedman began his professional life, ending any of the 14 things on his list must have seemed a pipe dream. By the end of his life, we are at least debating the merits of various government programs. Indiana has turned over control of its toll road to a private firm. Lots of states are experimenting with vouchers. A whole host of industries have been (partially) deregulated. Price controls are far less common. Hell, a Democratic president pushed though welfare reform. Libertopia remains distant…but it’s a whole lot less distant than it must have seemed in 1964.

How, then, should a liberal assess Milton Friedman’s legacy? By revitalizing conservatism, he’s made it far harder for me to help get Democrats elected. He’s forced liberals (or progressives as we now seem to want to call ourselves) to question ourselves. He’s made us engage with thoughtful, well-reasoned positions. He’s made us recognize that our orthodoxies don’t always map on to reality. In short, he’s provided liberals the sort of vigorous opposition that J.S. Mill tells us is so very necessary for free society to flourish.

So, on behalf of liberals everywhere, thank you, Milton Friedman. By revitalizing conservatism, you’ve saved liberalism from…itself.

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