Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Milton Friedman, Unperson

New Krugman:

Which suggests an interesting question: What ever happened to Friedman’s role as a free-market icon? The answer to that question says a lot about what has happened to modern conservatism. 

For Friedman, who used to be the ultimate avatar of conservative economics, has essentially disappeared from right-wing discourse. Oh, he gets name-checked now and then — but only for his political polemics, never for his monetary theories. Instead, Rand Paul turns to the “Austrian” view of thinkers like Friedrich Hayek — a view Friedman once described as an “atrophied and rigid caricature” — while Paul Ryan, the G.O.P.’s de facto intellectual leader, gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or more precisely from fictional characters in “Atlas Shrugged.” 

How did that happen? Friedman, it turns out, was too nuanced and realist a figure for the modern right, which doesn’t do nuance and rejects reality, which has a well-known liberal bias.

More here.

Back when I took macroeconomics as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my professor was an unabashed Friedmanite, complete with making required reading of the Chicago School guru's book Capitalism and Freedom.  For me, it was kind of exciting.  I was nineteen years old.  Reagan and all his Friedmanite advisers were still running the economy.  Iran/Contra hadn't happened yet.  Six years in, and it was still morning in America.  So taking an economics class from one of these guys was like going to church, and I don't mean boring fall-asleep church; I mean rolling in the aisles, speaking-in-tongues church, even though we didn't actually roll in the aisles or speak in tongues.  Friedman was the man, and I wanted to know what he was all about.

Flash forward to today.  I've been operating under the assumption for many years now that Milton Friedman continues to be the intellectual heart and soul of American conservative economics.  So I've taken his ideas seriously, if only to understand better the liberal and left-wing ideas about economics I've come to embrace, and to be able to discuss and argue economics better with conservatives.  But something weird has happened in the years since Obama was elected, and I've been slow to recognize it.  

The whole "Obama the socialist" thing should have tipped me off.  Instead, I've just been confused: "Hey, wait, I'm kind of socialist myself," I've thought, "and Obama doesn't come anywhere NEAR where my understanding of economics is."  My thinking has been that this has all been Tea Party, grass-roots driven, you know, people who don't really know much about economics quoting famed non-economists and demagogues Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck.  And to some extent that's certainly the case.  But little have I realized that there has always been someone further to the right, so far right, in fact, that Friedman once described himself as "an enormous admirer" of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, "but not for his economics."  

Indeed, Friedman went on to say of this now newly rehabilitated right wing economist, "I think Prices and Production is a very flawed book. I think his (Pure Theory of Capital) is unreadable."  And as Krugman observes, Friedman was totally unwilling to surrender to von Hayek's notion that society ought simply to accept periodic economic depressions as a way of life.  That is to say, while I've come around to rejecting a great deal of Milton Friedman's assertions, at least he was kind of in the real world, kind of dealing with an intellectual structure that I can get my arms around.  But von Hayek is so far in outer space that contemplating his ideas is like considering converting to Islam or Scientology.

Is it worth noting that Hitler, like von Hayek, was also an Austrian?  Nah.  Probably not.  The von Trapp family was Austrian, too.  So was Mozart.

Anyway, again as Krugman observes, there's also bad comic book writer Ann Rand to whom conservatives have been looking for economic ideas, but her best work was a six month run on the 1950s comic Captain Atlas, which is also unreadable, and worth virtually nothing in the collector's market today, so anybody who's into her is kind of a moron.  The point here is that once we've gone beyond Friedman into further right territory on economics, we have truly gone through the looking glass into an intellectual land of either absurdity or insanity.  Probably both.

And that's now mainstream for the Republican Party.  No wonder the government can't get anything done.

Von Hayek lecturing undergraduates at the London School of Economics, 1932.



Cover of the 2005 trade paperback reprinting Rand's infamous mid 1950s run on Captain Atlas.