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On Milton Friedman’s Economics and Motives

Here’s a letter to a high-school senior in Virginia:

Mr. H__:

Thanks for your e-mail, and for reading Cafe Hayek.

As you predict, I join you in rejecting your economics teacher’s belief that “Milton Friedman’s teachings privileged the powerful … and oppressed workers and the disenfranchised.” But it’s not my place to instruct you on how to respond.

You are, you say, familiar with some of Friedman’s writings. Re-read these writings, as well as others by Friedman – many of which are available free-of-charge here. As you do so, ask yourself which groups are identified by Friedman as suffering the most from government interventions and, hence, which groups are believed by Friedman to gain the most from a reduction in government intervention into the economy. Importantly, challenge yourself to read Friedman as your teacher and other of his critics read him. Try – really try – to understand just why these critics reach the conclusion they do.

If you take my advice, it’s possible that you’ll come to share your teacher’s critical view of Friedman. Leave yourself open to that possibility, for even if in the end you aren’t persuaded to that critical view, you’ll come to have a deeper understanding both of Friedman and of his critics.

I close with one substantive point: Your teacher is mistaken to describe Friedman as having been “a paid apologist for the privileged.” Even if you and I are incorrect, and your teacher is correct, about the consequences of Friedman’s policies, your teacher has no evidence that Friedman’s public-policy advocacy was fueled by any motive other than a sincere belief that those policies are the most humane and likely to improve the lives of ordinary people.

One of the substantive economic principles taught not only by Friedman, but also by Adam Smith and countless other economists, famous and obscure, is that (in the phrasing of David Henderson) “intentions are not results.” It follows that results do not necessarily reflect intentions. The very least your teacher should do with respect to Friedman is what I sincerely advise you to do with respect to your teacher: Take his arguments seriously and do not assume that disagreement with the conclusions implies that he had evil motives.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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