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Tyler Cowen on Underrated and Overrated Libertarian Thinkers

I largely agree with Tyler’s assessment in this Marginal Revolution post – including, I’m happy to emphasize, Tyler’s justified praise of Herbert Spencer.

The only significant disagreement that I have with Tyler’s post is his assessment of Milton Friedman.  Tyler is correct that Friedman added less to the corpus of libertarian ideas than many people suppose.  But Friedman was brilliant – unmatched, I believe, in the past 100 years – at communicating libertarian ideas.  Such communication is a substantive contribution.

My assessment might well reflect merely my own self-serving biases.  But at least at the conscious level I believe that I’m being objective.  An idea, no matter how brilliant and logical and applicable, remains sterile and useless if no more than a small handful of people grasp it.  Friedman had an unalloyed genius at making libertarian ideas easier to grasp and, hence, more widely heard and understood.  This excellence at communicating with the general public is not a second-rate characteristic or an achievement to discount.  After all, the number of truly great economists who communicate effectively only with other economists is far larger than is the number of even passably good economists who communicate effectively with the general public.

Friedman had a knack for enticing non-economists to listen to him and to take his ideas seriously.  As I’ve written and said on various occasions, I’m quite confident that the marginal social value today of an additional ‘unit’ of effective communication to the general public of the economic way of thinking is much, much higher than is the marginal social value of an additional ‘unit’ of high-level and indisputably sound economic research.  (Note for the record: I am not here saying that the latter is negative or anywhere close to negative.)


While speaking of Friedman, I take this opportunity to mention one of the scholars who I regard to be an underrated libertarian thinker: David Friedman.