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Lanny Ebenstein's New Biography of Milton Friedman:

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.

Viscus (mail) (www):
While I am not libertarian, I thought Milton Friedman had some very good ideas I could support.

(1) A negative income tax. I can't think of a more liberty friendly idea than ensuring that every person has a minimum level of economic power, regardless of their station in life or their actions. This protects the individual from the exertions of private power. Friedman was someone who wanted to perserve individual freedom from both public and private threats. His concern about public (i.e. government) power was obvious. His concern about private (i.e. corporate) power tends to get less notice. Friedman was not one who thought that managers should have the ability to spend shareholder money on anything they liked.

(2) School vouchers. Competition in education seems like a very good idea. Especially in light of the artificial barriers to entry that stand in the way of good teachers in terms of certification and the benefit of having diverse approaches instead of top-down bureaucratically-restrained
2.18.2007 2:51am
therut:
Is not Medicare and Medicaid a price control scheme on physicians and other providers. I really hate being under the thumb of the over boated overregulated scheme as a physician and am seriously considering not participating in these program or private insurance programs. I plan a cash only office fee of about 30.00. No insurance whatsoever do I plan to mess with. I would make more than I do now. I know some physicians have gone this route and I just might follow the freedom road in Medicine.
2.18.2007 3:12pm
Virginia Postrel (www):
Is there anything new or insightful in this biography and, if so, what? The two stories Ilya cites have been told a million times.
2.19.2007 3:36pm
Ilya Somin:
Is there anything new or insightful in this biography and, if so, what? The two stories Ilya cites have been told a million times.

I haven't read all the other literature on Friedman's life. However, this seems to be the most comprehensive biography, and explains in great detail how Friedman's influence grew as much as it did. At the very least, it has the advantage of being the only book that has the full Friedman story all in in one place.
2.19.2007 6:12pm
leftwinger (mail):
I would note that libertarianism is term stolen by classical liberals from libertarian socialists. I would further add that Friedman advanced a narrow conception of liberty at the expense of a more meaningful one. The 19th Century, more or less, approximated the ideal classical liberal state. Its freedoms left people hungry.
2.19.2007 6:14pm
Ilya Somin:
I would note that libertarianism is term stolen by classical liberals from libertarian socialists.

Of course, as Friedman pointed out, "liberal" is a term stolen by modern liberals from classical liberals.


I would further add that Friedman advanced a narrow conception of liberty at the expense of a more meaningful one. The 19th Century, more or less, approximated the ideal classical liberal state. Its freedoms left people hungry.

The 19th century was pretty distant from the "classical liberal" conception of the state. But to the extent that it was more similar to it than what it came before, it also saw massive advances in human welfare, including the virtual elimination of hunger in Britain, the US and other nations that came closest to the classical liberal conception.
2.19.2007 6:59pm
rarango (mail):
Certainly there were some terrible excesses in the transition from from mercantilist to industrialized society (child labor comes to mind; the great gains of that era in seems to me was in terms of the creation of a thriving, increasingly educated, and increasingly affluent middle class and the elimination of feudalism and slavery among the liberal democracies.
2.20.2007 12:03pm
Leftwinger (mail):
I agree that industrialism during the 19th century advanced human welfare. I don't know that I entirely agree that classical liberal values promoted industrialism. As you are surely aware, the United States and the UK governments during the 19th century heavily subsidized railroad companies, ports, and roads. How do you square that with classical liberal notions of private property?

In any event, the U.S. in the 19th century provided little in the way of a social safety net. So the losers in the 19th century economy were often hungry. This was, of course, entirely consistent with classical liberalism. Classical liberalism defines freedom narrowly as freedom from private and public interference with a person and her property. For economic losers this freedom is not very meaningful. What are the maintenance requirements of the human being? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

A decent society should guarantee each requirement because it cares about each individual. Because each individual is regarded as inherently valuable, we shouldn't think in terms of the costs to these "few" people as outweighed by benefits to the many. One hungry person is too many, and we should strive as a society to eradicate hunger altogether.

An injury to one is an injury to all.
2.20.2007 2:56pm
therut:
As long as it saves on child we can burn down the village. NOT.
2.20.2007 9:06pm
Leftwinger (mail):
The rut,
Is your comment in response to mine? I don't quite understand it. Are you saying according to my view it follows that to save a child one should sacrifice a village? That would not treat each individual villager's life as inherently valuable. My point was that cost/benefit calculations do not respect the inherent value of individuals. Perhaps, you meant that it follows from my view that we should let the whole village burn before sacrificing the individual child's life. That is a hard case. Fortunately those hard cases are few and far between. Should we scrap an otherwise cogent moral theory because it doesn't answer every hard case? Then we scrap all moral theories. Somehow I don't think you would have a problem with that. Note however that the implication of your criticism undermines the classical liberalism espoused by socalled libertarians. The inverse of your comment is: we should kill the child to save the village. that is fundamentally antithetical to the classical liberal viewpoint. No moral vision is entirely coherent, including the classical liberal one, it doesn't follow that we reject the vision. It is possible that we make it an ideal that we strive toward. Practical realities may prevent us from fully achieving the ideal. But that doesn't mean we reject it. Take the Constitution, it was based on classical liberal ideals of freedom, but it was not fully achieved, it still isn't. Did the framers and ratifiers really believe that slavery was consistent with the constitutional ideals? I seriously doubt it. They made compromises but I believe they always retained the ideals. My two cents for what its worth.
2.21.2007 10:13am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Certainly there were some terrible excesses in the transition from from mercantilist to industrialized society (child labor comes to mind; the great gains of that era in seems to me was in terms of the creation of a thriving, increasingly educated, and increasingly affluent middle class and the elimination of feudalism and slavery among the liberal democracies.
I know you're not attacking liberalism here, but your statement concedes too much. The industrial revolution did not create "child labor." The industrial revolution ended child labor. Child labor was a feature of every society in history until industralization made us wealthy enough to avoid it. Children on farms labored. It may have been more isolated labor, rather than concentrated in factories, and so it didn't make as much of an impression on people, but the fact that Charles Dickens didn't notice children involved in subsistence farming doesn't mean they were sitting around playing video games.
2.22.2007 3:48am
Leftwinger (mail):
David,
Are you really trying to equate kids working on a family farm with child labor in factories? There was a huge difference between the life of child working a small farm and the life of child in a factory. An eyewitness, Thomas Paine, a classical liberal, believed that the life a savage (Native American) was preferrable to the life of an industrial worker. According to your expansive view of labor, couldn't we say that we continue to have child labor, i.e. compulsory education? So industrialism hasn't eliminated child labor, has it?

I try to be calm reasoned and substantive. how do you remain calm about suffering and death of millions of people? Surely, we can agree that for whatever reason--too much government or what have you--millions are suffering and dying. Perhaps, you feel that this suffering and death is an inevitable cost of progress--sort of like the relatively unfavorable impression that industrial child labor left on people that Charles Dickens so masterfully exploited in his books. Who was it who said you have to crack a few eggs if you want to make an omelet? Oh, yes, V.I. Lenin. I mean unfavorable impressions like starvation and disease are unfortunate but inevitable consequences to our march of progress. right?
2.22.2007 11:48am