Book Reviews

The Oh-So Predictable Milton Friedman

A new biography reveals—quite sympathetically—a man who was full of non-surprises.

By Angus Burgin

Tagged EconomicsMilton Friedman

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative by Jennifer Burns MacMillan • 2023 592 pages $35

In the days after Milton Friedman died in November 2006, newspapers and magazines released all the expected memorials for a transformative figure in the economic life of the twentieth century. But while they aligned in their accounts of the breadth of his influence, their views on its implications starkly differed. For the conservatives at The Wall Street Journal he was remembered as a human, intellectual, and moral giant, and one of history’s preeminent contributors to “the achievement of human freedom.” For left-leaning critics at The Nation he was “the most destructive public intellectual of our time,” who promoted a cruel philosophy of “unrelenting, unapologetic self-interest” that “pushed aside human sympathy.” Within days of his passing, two very different visions of Friedman had already taken hold.

These competing narratives have only become further entrenched in the years since his death. The one prior biography—by the scholar Lanny Ebenstein—placed his life in a celebratory frame, describing him as a “towering intellect” who successfully ushered libertarian ideas from the margins into the economic mainstream. Meanwhile, a vast critical literature on neoliberalism has cast Friedman as the leading propagator of the “big myth” of market fundamentalism, and as the principal architect of a “disaster capitalism” that has destroyed countless lives and wreaked havoc on global political economy.

In conjunction, these depictions of Friedman as team leader in a world-historical contest have served, however paradoxically, to diminish the interest of his ideas. His role in histories of the twentieth century, whether written by friends or foes, has become entirely predictable. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson famously wrote in “Self-Reliance,” whereas “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” By such standards, the Friedman who has become familiar from recent histories seems, if anything, to have been understood all too well.

So the arrival of a new biography—vast in scope, densely researched, and written by a preeminent historian of the American right—is a welcome development. This is a chance to follow Friedman into contexts beyond his stock role in the ideological dramas of the past century, and to peer behind the backdrop of the stage where he pronounced all of his familiar lines. Perhaps doing so will reveal hidden depths and dissonances. If Friedman has become the face of contemporary capitalism, a robust biography would help us to see how it can be human after all.

In many ways, Jennifer Burns, a trained intellectual historian, is ideally suited for this task. Her first book was a biography of the right-wing ideologue Ayn Rand, which made use of Rand’s newly opened archives to renarrate both her intellectual career and her broad influence on the conservative movement. Like Friedman, Rand had been subjected to two very different life narratives: hagiographies written by followers who had been converted by her to the religion of capitalism, and jeremiads written by humanities professors dismayed by the perceived thinness and cruelty of her social philosophy. Burns sidestepped both of these perspectives, developing an alternative portrait of Rand rooted in paradoxes. She was a rationalist philosopher who rose to fame for her romantic fictions, and a champion of free interchange who became known for her refusal to allow even minor deviations from her principles. In Burns’s reading Rand was brilliant, accomplished, and a figure of transformative force—but also mercurial, dogmatic, and ultimately incapable of sustaining the movement her work had created. Her veneer of rigorous consistency masked painful contradictions.

In some ways Friedman is a similar subject: Like Rand, he is an icon on the American right, known for his extraordinary capacity to persuade popular audiences of the merits of a market-centered worldview. But in other ways, he and Rand form a striking contrast. While Rand always operated on the margins of American intellectual life, Friedman inhabited its inner sanctums—rising to president of the American Economic Association, serving as inspiration and adviser to two presidents, and winning the Clark Medal for young economists and, later, a Nobel Prize. And while Rand was notoriously irascible, Friedman became widely known for his buoyant persona, always confident that if his advice was heeded, a better world was waiting around the corner. Friedman was frank that he found Rand “intolerant and dogmatic” and could “never feel comfortable” with her ideas—despite their obvious congruities with his own.

So while Rand was an outsider always misaligned with the expectations of even the most sympathetic elites, Friedman was a small-town kid from New Jersey who ascended rapidly to the heights of both academia and the policymaking world. When told through the person of Ayn Rand, the account of market advocacy in the postwar era can seem a tragedy; shifting the focus to Friedman lends it a triumphal cast.

And while Burns does not hesitate to criticize Friedman for some of his most troubling episodes, she presents his life story in largely admiring terms. The early chapters highlight his ability to prevail over unlikely circumstances—from his upbringing as the child of a jobber in Rahway who discovered a remarkable affinity for economics as an undergraduate at Rutgers, to the young scholar who ascended rapidly to the heights of a discipline still haunted by a deep legacy of antisemitism. One of the major themes of the book is Friedman’s capacity to look beyond the “male chauvinism” that generated a “vast blind spot in economics”—via his close collaborations with Dorothy Brady and Margaret Reid on the economics of consumption, with Anna Schwartz on their landmark history of monetary policy, and with his wife, Rose Director Friedman, on many of his popular columns and books. For Burns, Friedman’s disregard for the profession’s inbuilt misogyny provided some validation for his anti-elitist self-image, and gave him a “secret weapon” that propelled his rise to academic influence and public prominence. As a biographer, Burns is credulous toward Friedman’s intentions, impressed by his energy and originality, laudatory of his influence on economic policy, and skeptical of the perceived excesses of his critics.

It is little wonder, then, that scholars who are more dubious of Friedman’s legacy began firing off fusillades even before the book’s publication. In a characteristically acute close reading on Substack, the historian Tim Barker unraveled Burns’s chapter on Friedman’s controversial visit to Chile, less than two years after Augusto Pinochet led the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. In Barker’s telling, Burns parrots Friedman’s own language, marginalizes and psychologizes his critics, draws on sources linked to the CIA’s anti-Allende agenda, and excuses Friedman’s willing complicity in Pinochet’s governance with a flippant suggestion that he “remained focused on the omelet rather than the eggs.” At the same time, he observes, the book dismissively describes critics of Friedman’s visit as “a sort of pre-Twitter mob of the global left” who were trying to efface the dark history of Marxist state violence by associating similar tactics with a leading advocate for capitalism. The implications of this reading are clear enough: While Burns may cultivate the persona of a “detached apolitical scholar” or a “centrist historian trying, admirably, to be scrupulously fair to the right-wing figures she studies,” her methods, sources, and language all reveal her own participation in the politicization of her subject’s life history. In Barker’s account, she is a conservative sympathizer dressed in an ill-fitting garb of academic objectivity.

Burns does indeed have sympathy for her subject. She makes that abundantly clear in the book’s epilogue, which describes Friedman as “an extraordinary intellect” rooted in a family and institutional culture that “valued relentless, fearless inquiry for its own sake” and praises him for producing ideas and insights that “proved persuasive to many, both the powerful and the lowly, because they matched experience, offered new ways to tackle old problems, and predicted what would happen next.” And she shows little patience for scholars who have taken Friedman to task for a lack of concern for power disparities and economic inequalities generated by capitalism. That is an “egregious misreading,” she writes, that “ignores the vast energy Friedman poured into the negative income tax, his opposition to licensure requirements that blocked small players in favor of established entrants, his ceaseless push to abolish the military draft, his pointed arguments about regulatory capture.”

While the tenor of these reflections—at once laudatory and defensive—might give dispassionate historians pause, it is not uncommon in biographies. The format makes it difficult to avoid foregrounding the perspective of a protagonist, or, after more than a decade of immersion in a source’s papers, sometimes identifying with it. Authors would find it challenging to sustain a reader’s attention for a life history of more than 500 pages without venturing some compassion for their subjects. Burns’s book is now by far the richest and widest-ranging account of Friedman’s intellectual world, filled with new details from the archives, lucid summaries of his economic theories, persuasive explanations of his influence over public policy, and evocative reconstructions of the academic networks that inspired, supported, and sustained his ideas. To suggest that it is a work of mere propaganda would be unfair.

But it is clear that this biography is joining, rather than transcending, the longstanding tendency to write Friedman’s life in binary terms. It never juxtaposes its accolades for Friedman’s accomplishments with much critical assessment of the implications of his work. Yes, Burns at times chides Friedman for taking positions that she finds indefensible. Of his time in Chile, she writes that he “failed to appreciate the optics of meeting with Pinochet,” and that his visit “was not the time and place to assert that what felt like freedom was actually the road to serfdom, with the unspoken implication Chileans were now freer than they knew.” She is similarly dismayed by his failure to distance himself from the segregationists who rallied behind his proposals for school vouchers. He “made only feeble efforts to disassociate his ideas from their new champions,” and his endorsement of integration was “hesitant” at best. But these moments in Friedman’s career are presented as wrong turns, or betrayals of his stated ideals; critics’ suggestions that they reveal a philosophical affinity for authoritarian politics, or accommodation with racial inequality, are not seriously engaged. For Burns, Friedman is best approached as a brilliant purveyor of tools to be employed and adapted by future generations, rather than as a source of social theories that bear some connection to the pathologies of political economy in the twentieth century.

To some extent, this celebratory account of Friedman’s ascent to influence is tempered with an elegiac suggestion that he was fated to be the “last conservative.” Burns considers Friedman a “conservative” because of his willingness to rely on some methods and ideas that many of his colleagues in the economics profession had long since forsaken, and because of his close affiliation with the American right. In her telling, he was the “last” of this kind because the political coalition supporting his commitments to “free market economics, individual liberty, and global cooperation” has now “cracked apart.” In this regard she frames his alliance with Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election as a historic error that gave his ideas “forward momentum” while generating a “hidden loss”: Over time, she suggests, the forces of reactionary populism have overtaken the American right, in the process foregrounding the culture wars and jettisoning his positions on personal freedoms and free trade.

But this is an awkward frame, presented halfheartedly in a few paragraphs in the introduction and then mostly ignored. Friedman usually abjured the label “conservative,” and with good reason: He had no regard for established practices and no compunction about suggesting policy changes so radical as to make extremists blanche. It is difficult to conceive a figure less temperamentally disposed toward the conservative inclination, in William F. Buckley’s famous phrase, to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.” And he remains less notable for his lasts than for his firsts: As the progenitor of countless proposals that reshaped economic policymaking, and a principal architect of the Chicago School’s theoretical and methodological transformation of the economics profession, he was far more interested in shaping the politics of the future than in preserving the politics of the past. Even an acolyte need shed no tears over the fate of Friedmanite ideas in the twenty-first century. Despite the frustrations of Never Trumpers and the antics of the Freedom Caucus, his views—on everything from monetary policy to foreign exchange, from welfare programs to the military draft, from school vouchers to disaster relief—continue to find powerful constituencies, often across party lines. He is better seen as a founding radical of the neoliberal age, rather than the last adherent of a conservatism in decline.

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative is a judicious book, but its undertones are heroic. In Burns’s telling, the abundant sunshine generated by Friedman’s theories casts few shadows. It is rare for a life history so rich with revelatory details to yield such an uncanny consistency.

In the preface to his extraordinary three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky wrestled with the messy relationship between the accomplishments of an individual and the interest inspired by his or her life. “Some people make marvellous subjects because their lives are crammed with events and emotions with which people can identify,” even as their worldly accomplishments were mediocre; while others “of outstanding achievement make poor subjects because they led lives so dull that not even the biographer’s art can rescue them.” The fascination of Skidelsky’s Keynes lies less in his indubitable greatness as an economist than in the plasticity of his intellectual commitments, and the volatile tangle of connections and relationships that impelled their evolution. His story is filled with hidden contours, unexpected allegiances, passionate diversions, knowing self-contradictions.

Friedman was a contrast to Keynes in many obvious ways, which Burns readily observes. Even in the early years of his career, she writes, Friedman rejected the Keynesian “ideas that would most profoundly shape economics in the years ahead.” But her portrait of Friedman is perhaps most striking for the total absence of the surprises and disjunctures that characterized the life of his predecessor. Friedman once told an interviewer that his relationships hewed strictly to a rule: “What I say to one person, I say to everyone. I never say anything off the record.” While perhaps an admirable trait in a friend or acquaintance, this commitment is a biographer’s scourge: If everything is floating on the surface, why marshal a fleet of submersibles in order to probe the depths?

If anything, Burns’s Friedman is still more uniform than previous interpreters had allowed. Prior intimations of youthful sympathies for the New Deal turn out, in her reading, to have been exaggerated. Beyond wandering into a few sessions of a seminar on Max Weber in graduate school and highlighting the titles of philosophy books on a syllabus for a class he never attended, he appears to have wasted little time on the writings of non-economists. He remained a devoted husband with a family who seem to have hewed closely to his own political ideals. When his collaborator Anna Schwartz spoke warmly of travel experiences in Paris, his reply was perplexed: “Why would I spend my time going to museums?” Despite all the arts of an eminent biographer, the only enigmatic aspect of Friedman’s life story remains the absence thereof.

Read more about EconomicsMilton Friedman

Angus Burgin is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression.

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