Mil­ton Fried­man: The Last Conservative

  • Review
By – November 15, 2023

In this biog­ra­phy of Mil­ton Fried­man — America’s last con­ser­v­a­tive,” mean­ing some­one who favors small gov­ern­ment and unfet­tered mar­kets — Jen­nifer Burns gives a quick look at Friedman’s fam­i­ly back­ground before shift­ing her focus to his work in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s eco­nom­ics depart­ment. At Chica­go, Fried­man met his future wife, his future col­leagues, and, more impor­tant­ly, his spe­cial­ty: price the­o­ry. Like many in his cohort, Fried­man went to Wash­ing­ton and New York to work on New Deal leg­is­la­tion, but his goal was to fin­ish a doc­tor­ate and teach at Chicago.

Fried­man dealt with a swirl of depart­men­tal bat­tles. How­ev­er, on the intel­lec­tu­al front, things were calmer. He col­lab­o­rat­ed with a few women, includ­ing the econ­o­mists Rose Fried­man (his wife), Dorothy Brady, Mar­garet Reid, and Anna Schwartz (his life­long col­lab­o­ra­tor). They all worked with him either on his prize-win­ning mon­e­tary his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States or on his research relat­ed to the per­ma­nent income hypoth­e­sis; yet none of these hid­den fig­ures” received much cred­it from Fried­man or from the eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion at large.

Fried­man was famous for mon­e­tarism, which argued that key prob­lems like infla­tion and unem­ploy­ment are caused by changes in the size of mon­ey sup­ply, rather than gov­ern­ment spend­ing. He argued for a rules-based mon­e­tary pol­i­cy, so that every­one could rely on the Fed­er­al Reserve con­trol­ling the size of M2 — a par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant mon­e­tary aggre­gate — in a pre­dictable way. Apart from mon­e­tarism, Fried­man advo­cat­ed for free­dom,” which boiled down to remov­ing the gov­ern­ment from var­i­ous sec­tors of pub­lic life. This includ­ed end­ing the draft and start­ing an all-vol­un­teer army, bring­ing com­pe­ti­tion to pub­lic schools by giv­ing par­ents vouch­ers to pick schools, issu­ing neg­a­tive income tax” checks to the poor instead of main­tain­ing the wel­fare sys­tem, and let­ting mar­ket forces destroy dis­crim­i­na­tion instead of pass­ing laws. Accord­ing to Fried­man, an unfet­tered mar­ket with free­dom of choice” offered bet­ter results than a well-mean­ing government.

Fame brought Fried­man invi­ta­tions from around the world to advise lead­ers on insti­tut­ing free” mar­kets, which some­times meant impos­ing aus­ter­i­ty bud­gets (Thatcher’s UK) or mur­der­ous author­i­tar­i­an regimes (Pinochet’s Chile). At home, Fried­man advised Pres­i­dent Rea­gan on sup­ply-side poli­cies and oth­er tax cuts for the rich — but by this point, he wasn’t using graphs and data to prove points. Fried­man had become a use­ful icon, on dis­play for legit­i­mate right-wing campaigns. 

Read­ers expect­ing a biog­ra­phy full of per­son­al or fam­i­ly details will be dis­ap­point­ed; this is instead an intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of the right wing of the eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, cen­tered on Mil­ton Fried­man. Burns men­tions the dis­crim­i­na­tion women faced in the pro­fes­sion, and the mur­der­ous con­se­quences of Friedman’s inter­ven­tions in Chile, but she doesn’t eval­u­ate Friedman’s respon­si­bil­i­ty in any way. Her book would have been stronger if she had. Like­wise, it would have been inter­est­ing if she’d con­sid­ered the impact of cryp­tocur­ren­cy on mon­e­tarism. But the his­to­ry Burns has writ­ten is use­ful, par­tic­u­lar­ly for stu­dents of the devel­op­ment of mod­ern eco­nom­ic thought.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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