Milton Friedman left a complex legacy, says his biographer

The conservative economist stayed true to individual choice as his standard, says biographer Jennifer Burns. He championed privatization and free markets. 

Katya Mizrahi
"Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative," by Jennifer Burns. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp.

It is difficult to imagine what the world would be like today without conservative economist Milton Friedman. In the 1980s, his work was fundamental to the global shift toward free markets. He helped the United States abandon the military draft, spearheaded the world of school choice, spurred a wave of privatization around the world, and was largely responsible for the Federal Reserve becoming something everyday people know and care about. By the end of his life in 2006, Dr. Friedman was praised and protested in almost every corner of the world. The Monitor spoke with Jennifer Burns, author of “Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative.” 

Who is the Milton Friedman most people know?

They know what I call the YouTube Friedman, which is later in life when he’s very famous and he’s a representative of American conservative ideas. He’s very polemical, and he has this sort of ingenious response to any question, which is basically, “We need more capitalism” or “Let’s let the market take over.” Some of the complexity and some of the nuance is lost and also a lot of the context. I’m trying to bring a fuller Friedman into view.

How would you summarize Dr. Friedman’s worldview?

He liked the phrase “money matters,” which is pointing to the role of the quantity of money or the monetary system in economic prosperity. But ... the other summary I could use is a title of one of the most famous books he wrote with [help from] his wife, “Capitalism and Freedom.” He really believed in individual personal freedom as his ethical standard. And he believed that capitalism was really the only system ... that gave people freedom in their individual lives. 

A colleague of Dr. Friedman’s once noted his “lack of interest” in nonrational factors affecting economics. Was that a strength? A weakness? Both?

It’s a strength insofar as it’s the basic way his mind works. But it’s a weakness in that it doesn’t give us a comprehensive picture of human motivation or human behavior. He did have a very rational mind, and he was a systematic thinker. That enabled him to quickly get to the essence of certain issues and then see things other people wouldn’t see. Where this becomes a weakness is his analysis of civil rights. He looks at discrimination, and he basically says that discrimination is irrational, so eventually it will cease to exist. [But] it doesn’t matter if discrimination is irrational or not ... you can’t just imagine it will slowly fade out. So other things need to be added to the picture. 

Some would be surprised to learn that Dr. Friedman was a proponent of a guaranteed minimum income. What was his thinking there?

[Following the Great Depression] he sees a new demand in societies for governments to do more than they did in the past. At the same time, he doesn’t want the government involved in detailed economic regulation. 

So the minimum income becomes for him the way you guarantee that everybody has a certain level of cash in society, and they can use that to meet their basic needs. They have a choice in how they use that. He believes that’s compatible with a more liberal economic and social system because it doesn’t require a large bureaucracy, it doesn’t require intervening in people’s lives, and then you can let markets evolve. 

He argues that this could actually be an incentive to work. And that’s the opposite of what everyone else is saying, which is that if you give people money, they’re going to become lazy ... and never work. We have some research now that’s showing Friedman’s idea may be more accurate.

You dedicate a chapter to Dr. Friedman’s “secret weapons.” Who were these women who shaped much of his work?

For most of his major works in economics, there was a woman collaborator, either formally or informally. The most well known is Anna Schwartz, who was his co-author on “A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960,” which was one of his big breakthrough books. And then Rose Friedman, his wife, also helped with his popular books, starting with “Capitalism and Freedom” and then “Free to Choose.” Then I was looking at one of his more technical works of economics, and I found a bunch of other women he was in correspondence with. Friedman was not a feminist, but he treated these women much more as equals than men of his time, and it paid enormous dividends for his work. If you took all these women out of the story, I’m not sure you’d have an economist that people would be writing a biography of 20 years after his death.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Friedman had a set of ideas and principles, and he really followed them. He did not pay attention to what the majority said if his own analysis led somewhere different, and he was unafraid to be unpopular. If he didn’t change his ideological orientation or his basic values, he did admit when he was wrong. I also think he articulates the values of individualism in a way that remains important in an age when we are thinking about collective identity and collective guilt. He brings us back to the importance of the individual and the individual’s ability to make choices in his or her life. 

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