Milton Friedman, an 'Elfin Libertarian' Giant
By David Henderson
In recent months, various critics of the late Milton Friedman have argued that Friedman dominated economic policy for a large part of the last half century. And yet they don’t typically mean that in a complimentary way. In an August 24 New York Times article, for example, editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum writes that the “most important figure” in postwar economics was Milton Friedman, “an elfin libertarian who refused to take a job in Washington, but whose writings and exhortations seized the imagination of policymakers.” Tellingly, Appelbaum’s article is titled “Blame Economists for the Mess We’re In.” I have been a fan of Friedman since, at age 17, I read a 1968 column he wrote in Newsweek. I have read much of his academic work and nearly all of his popular writing. And I certainly think Friedman was the most important and influential economist of the last half the 20th century.
Friedman certainly had some major policy successes. Two stand out. The first was his role, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, in helping end military conscription. The second was his and co-author Anna J. Schwartz’s revival of the idea that the growth rate of the money supply has an important effect on the inflation rate. I’ll review some of those accomplishments in more detail. But did Friedman dominate economic policy? If he had, we would be much better off. Unfortunately, he did not. And, contrary to the made-up stories about Friedman, the evolution of his thinking is much more interesting than some of his critics think. Early in his time in the economics profession, Friedman was, like the other young economists of his day, a Keynesian. But he was also an empiricist who carefully studied data. He was that rarest of human beings: a smart man who, well after age 30, changed his mind based on the evidence he studied.
This is from my latest Hoover article, “Milton Friedman, an ‘Elfin Libertarian’ Giant,” Defining Ideas, February 6. (The February 6 date is a little confusing: It actually was published today.)
What motivated me to write it was an excellent, but lengthier piece, written by EconTalk host and fellow Hoover Institution economist Russ Roberts. I reference the piece in my article.
I took a different but overlapping tack, going into the details of who Friedman was, and showing that he was much more interesting a person than the caricature laid out by former Stanford Law School dean Larry Kramer. I suspect that Kramer did not know Friedman well and I’m virtually positive that he couldn’t have written what he did and have read Milton’s and Rose’s autobiography, Two Lucky People.
Here’s the bio of Friedman in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.