Brad DeLong has an interesting review of a biography of Milton Friedman. He writes:
Part of what made Friedman a worthy adversary for American liberals was that he had a fully formed worldview, one that started with a bedrock commitment to people, to their ability to make judgments for themselves and to decide what they like best. Out of this commitment grew an imperative to maximize individual freedom. On top of that came the judgment that free markets are almost always the silver bullet to solve all of society’s problems, as well as a powerful conviction that the facts, if honestly examined, will always be on his side. And on top of that was layered a fear and suspicion of government as an easily captured tool for the enrichment of the cynical and powerful, who grab what they can.[…]
But, perhaps more seriously, Friedman ducked the big questions regarding the relationship between economic freedom and political liberty, and he was completely incapable of seeing that political liberty is both a negative and a positive liberty: freedom from tyranny and oppression but also the freedom and power to decide on and accomplish our common purposes. These are the master questions of history and moral philosophy, and for all his brilliance and hard work, Friedman is of absolutely no help in answering them. As Posner says, Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom “flunks the test of accuracy of prediction ” [The] view that socialism of the sort that Britain embraced under the old Labour Party was incompatible with democracy [is] extreme and inaccurate.” Yet Friedman bought into that Hayekian view. And in so doing, he ultimately led his followers, and tried to lead the rest of us, down a false path.
DeLong also mentions that he himself agrees with Friedman’s monetarist explanation (novel at the time) of what caused the Great Depression and that he regards Friedman as a mostly reality-based “first class” intellect.
I can’t help but think that the problem with Friedman’s intellectual legacy (I think it’s fair to say that the Chicago school of economics has been an unmitigated disaster during the last decade, at least) has more to do with the underlying nature of contemporary conservatism than with Friedman himself. Contemporary conservatives, too often, have a mystic belief in certain texts, gurus, and ideas. American exceptionalism, THE CONSTITUTION, Hayek, Friedman, the bible, free markets, magic dolphins…once upon a time the genius George W. Bush.
They’re almost all like this, whether they couch it in terms of religion (Ross Douthat) or even some kind of neuropseudoscientific marshmallow test mumbo jumbo (Bobo). There’s always a magic bullet right around the corner, or buried just beneath the sands of time.
There are plenty of important far-left writers who I enjoy reading and who have influenced how I see things, Marx and Chomsky, for example. But I don’t see them as infallible and while I find their analysis often brilliant, I probably disagree with their prescriptions at least as much as I agree with Friedman’s.
Like a lot of liberals, I see the future as a hard slog that can hopefully be ameliorated by smart liberal policies, but I don’t think that if everyone went back and read this or that book, we’ll have paradise on earth or that understanding neuropathways better will move us all that far towards a utopia.
And, to me, that’s a crucial difference between the right and the left right now.