Milton

With Milton Friedman's recent death, conservative bloggers all over the place have taken the opportunity to lionize the great economist -- or, more specifically, to lionize their own perceptions of what Friedman said, stood for, and believed.

For example, it's often said that Friedman contradicted Keynesian thought -- that Keynes advocated interventionist government, and Friedman showed why it couldn't work. And to a certain extent, this is true -- Keynes did tend toward the notion that governments could and should exert control over an economy to the benefit of its people, while Friedman countered that private interests could be counted on to do the same in their own interests, in a less-corrupt manner than governments.

Really, though, both men simply had a grip on different ends of the same creature. Keynes focused on the low end of the interventionist scale -- the point below which conditions become intolerable for the market's losers -- while Friedman focused on the high end -- the point above which government intervention only stifles creativity and human freedom. Between those two points is where reality happens.

Because, at the end of the day, we don't want to have our choices restricted by Uncle Sam or Sam Walton. We want to be free to decide on our own -- and we want that freedom in fact, not in theory. So when Wal-Mart comes to town, looking to drive all competition out of business, we might very well turn to the regulators to preserve our freedom by denying them theirs.

Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. Putting aside the ways that operations like Wal-Mart game government policy to gain a market-distorting advantage over their smaller competitors, sure, there's a perfectly legitimate argument to be made that invoking the government to go after an organization just because it outperforms its competitors is contrary to the principles of the free market. But there are many circumstances in which people invoke government to preserve some value which is deemed more essential than pure profit, more important than market freedom. It is a value judgement.

Friedman recognized this fact. He did not argue that the profit motive and market forces had to crowd out all other considerations in government policymaking, contrary to what many of his supporters today would claim. Indeed, he seems to have been quite open to making non-economic value judgements -- sometimes in line with market theory, as when he spoke out against the US "War on Drugs":
"Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages," he wrote in an open letter to then-drug czar Bill Bennett in 1990. "Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, 'crack' would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts."
In other cases, Friedman's value judgement led him to abandon market principles in favor of more-desirable outcomes, as he did when he advocated eliminating all types of managed welfare programs in favor of a direct redistribution-of-wealth scheme:
Market forces can accomplish wonderful things, he realized, but they cannot ensure a distribution of income that enables all citizens to meet basic economic needs. His proposal, which he called the negative income tax, was to replace the multiplicity of existing welfare programs with a single cash transfer — say, $6,000 — to every citizen. A family of four with no market income would thus receive an annual payment from the I.R.S. of $24,000. For each dollar the family then earned, this payment would be reduced by some fraction — perhaps 50 percent. A family of four earning $12,000 a year, for example, would receive a net supplement of $18,000 (the initial $24,000 less the $6,000 tax on its earnings).

[ . . . ]

If the main problem of the poor is that they have too little money, he reasoned, the simplest and cheapest solution is to give them some more. He saw no advantage in hiring armies of bureaucrats to dispense food stamps, energy stamps, day care stamps and rent subsidies.
Straight handouts to the poor, this man advocated, for no better reason than that they were poor and needed money. No oversight, no restrictions on what the money could be used for, simply a free ride. Why? Because it provided the simplest and most efficient solution to the crisis of grinding poverty.

Of course, neither of the value judgements above get much play when the Friedman fans speak of his greatness. Most of his most enthusiastic "supporters" would call either of these positions absolutely unthinkable. Which only proves that it's not really Friedman they believe in, but the corporatist ideology that's cherry-picked those ideas of his that suit their agenda, and discarded the rest.

As Paul Rosenberg puts it: "His folly was enacted, while his wisdom was ignored." Let that be his epitaph.

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