Many bloggers and commentators have recently trumpeted one important new book about the history of libertarianism: Brian Doherty's fascinating Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.
I want to focus here on another book on libertarian history that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle: Lanny Ebenstein's new biography of Milton Friedman. Ebenstein tells the amazing story of how Friedman achieved the incredible double feat of becoming the most influential academic economist since Keynes, while simultaneously becoming a prominent public intellectual and exercising greater influence over public policy than any other right of center thinker of his time (and all but a handful of liberal ones). Ebenstein's recounting of Friedman's extraordinary success makes an interesting counterpoint to Doherty's account of the large amounts of time and money that too many other libertarian activists have invested in various failed efforts to spread their ideas; the most important of these was, of course, the Libertarian Party, whose negative influence I have previously decried. By himself, Friedman did more to promote libertarian ideas and influence public policy in a libertarian direction than the entire LP put together over the course of the Party's 35 year history.
Ebenstein's book also contains many great quotes by and about Friedman. A couple of examples:
When Friedman married fellow economist Rose Director in 1938, her brother Aaron Director (also a prominent economist and libertarian), wrote to ask her to assure Milton that "I shall not hold his very strong New Deal leanings . . . against him" (pg. 39). As Lebenstein explains, Friedman did not become a libertarian until several years later.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls on the country, a ruinous policy rightly decried by Friedman and most other economists. Nixon told Friedman not to "blame George [Shultz] for this monstrosity," even though Friedman's friend Shultz was the administration official in charge of administering the price controls. Friedman's response: "I don't blame George, I blame you" (pg. 186).
For some of my own thoughts on Friedman's impact, see my obituary for him.