A life seeks nuance in free-market gospel

A life seeks nuance in free-market gospel

In writing her new biography of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, known throughout his long life for his cheerful endorsement of deregulation and free markets, Jennifer Burns certainly had her work cut out for her. Reflecting on how controversial her subject was, she says that one of her goals was “to restore the fullness of Friedman’s thought to his public image”. She depicts Friedman, who died in 2006 at 94, as a victim of a “bipartisan assault”, besieged by radicals on the left and populists on the right who decry the “neoliberalism” that he so ardently promoted. “As he increasingly came to symbolise a political movement,” she writes, “the nuance and complexity of his ideas was lost”.

But even Burns has to admit that this attention to “nuance and complexity” was something that Friedman did a lot to discourage. He spent decades fashioning himself into a public celebrity, issuing confident pronouncements on the miracle of markets, whether in his columns for Newsweek or in his 1980 television series, Free to Choose. One famous scene has the tiny, baldheaded Friedman holding up a pencil, marvelling that thousands of people who didn’t know one another had helped to create it. The principles underlying such intricate cooperation were “really very simple”, he said. Productivity and harmony could be conjured by “the magic of the price system”.

To get beyond Friedman the populariser, Burns — a historian at Stanford University who has also written a biography of Ayn Rand — devotes a good part of this book to parsing Friedman’s work before 1970, when he was still railing against the Keynesian orthodoxy of the day. At the University of Chicago, where Friedman spent most of his teaching life, he edged out the leftist scholars clustered in the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, shrewdly getting the Rockefeller Foundation to pull its funding from the commission and finance Friedman’s workshop instead.

Charismatic in the classroom, Friedman didn’t just teach students; he created converts. The eventual result was a faculty that Burns calls “unusually inbred”. Friedman may have had to bide his time on the periphery of his field, but inside the University of Chicago, he surrounded himself with a posse of like-minded economists. He was one of the few economists to predict the stagflation of the 1970s, when the Keynesian tool kit seemed powerless in the face of high inflation and high unemployment.

“The more complex the regression, the more sceptical I am,” Friedman liked to say. For all Burns’ promise to reveal the subtlety of his ideas, what becomes clear in this book is how frequently drawn he was to an insistent simplicity. There was a political dimension. Complicated econometric models suggested that a complicated economy could be planned. But price theory — which holds that prices are the most efficient mechanism for coordinating economic activity — suggested that planning is destructive or moot.

Such sanguine glosses on an unfettered market as the best of all possible worlds dovetailed with Friedman’s relentlessly sunny disposition. As a child in New Jersey, the only son of parents who immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Friedman carried himself like “an ebullient and self-assured princeling”, Burns writes. He married his grad school sweetheart, Rose, who gave up her own promising career as an economist to raise their two children. From all accounts, they seemed to have a happy, loving marriage, and they even co-wrote a memoir, Two Lucky People. It contains what Burns calls a “sanitised version” of a terrible event that took place one night in 1955 while Milton was on a work trip in India. An intruder broke into the family home in Chicago and raped Rose.

Milton “saw no reason to change his plans, which called for two months abroad”, Burns writes, until one of his trusted mentors persuaded him to return home. The detail is astonishing and perhaps telling — even if Burns largely drains it of emotional force, moving briskly on, in the next section, to Friedman’s congressional testimony about the money supply.

Much of the book is given over to dissecting disputes over Friedman’s monetary concepts, yet glimpses of his personality do emerge. He was a blithe optimist and, when he collaborated with women in his field, he could be a blithe credit hog. Although he made supportive phone calls on behalf of Anna Schwartz, his co-author on A Monetary History of the United States (1963), Burns also shows Friedman taking ownership of shared ideas and leaving it to women collaborators to do the grunt work.

Burns is a research fellow of the Hoover Institution, the think tank dedicated to free markets where Friedman was also a research fellow for three decades after leaving Chicago. Her biography is far from hagiography. But when she encounters the most notorious episodes of Friedman’s life, she is so keen to re-create his point of view that her writing gets windy and protective. She details Friedman’s opposition to the civil rights movement, which “casts a shadow on his legacy”. Yet here, as elsewhere, she strains to be generous, constantly repeating Friedman’s own repeated denials of prejudice. In one convoluted passage, she suggests that his refusal to denounce the segregationist use of school vouchers was, however troubling, a matter of him sticking to his hands-off principles.

“Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative” By Jennifer Burns. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 578 pages. $35.

Jennifer Szalai is the non-fiction book critic for The New York Times.

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