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Milton Friedman the Moderate?

Here’s another letter to the Washington Post on Nicholas Wapshott’s uninformed understanding of Milton Friedman:

In “How conservatives misread and misuse Milton Friedman” (July 28) Nicholas Wapshott leaps from the fact that Milton Friedman was no anarchist to the conclusion that Friedman supported a larger role for government than the “near-nihilistic” (!) role allegedly advocated by Mitt Romney and other leading political conservatives.

This is crazy talk by Mr. Wapshott.

Does Romney support unilateral free trade?  Emphatically not.  How about ending the war on drugs?  No.  Has Romney called for the elimination of government licensing requirements for professionals such as physicians and lawyers?  No.  Can we expect a President Romney to work to abolish farm subsidies, minimum-wage legislation, antitrust legislation, Social Security, and the Fed?  Hardly.  Would a Pres. Romney even as much as call for (never mind work for) abolishing the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs?  Not on your life.  But Milton Friedman explicitly endorsed each of the above (and others too numerous to mention) policies to radically reduce government’s reach and to weaken its grip.

One may disagree with Milton Friedman’s principled opposition to the vast majority of what Uncle Sam does today.  But Mr. Wapshott’s portrayal of Friedman as championing a role for government that is more extensive than the one now promoted by establishment Republicans is utterly – indeed, insanely – distorted.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Foremost among Friedman’s books on public policy are Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free To Choose (1980).

I don’t have his book in front of me now, but Wapshott – in Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics (which I read this past Spring) – gets Friedman wrong there, too.  In that book, Wapshott makes the bogus assertion that “Friedman, who, while wishing for the government to be minimized, believed that an economy should be managed to provide steady growth.”  (I retrieved this quotation, from Wapshott’s book, from an e-mail that I sent this past April to a friend at the Manhattan Institute – an e-mail in which I expressed my disappointment at Wapshott’s surprisingly uninformed reading of Friedman.)  Wapshott’s book is riddled with so many basic mistakes that it’s impossible to take seriously.  One other such mistake that I recall is his identification of Rhode Island native John Bates Clark as being “a German socialist.”  (Although Clark – like many Americans of his era – studied in Germany, and although early on Clark was – like the early Hayek – sympathetic to socialism, Clark is best classified, I think, as non-ideological.  If one must attach an ideology to Clark based on the writings that earned him fame it would not be “socialist,” but rather something closer to “free-marketeer.”)