Milton Friedman is something of a bogeyman for many on the left. The free market economist is seen as some kind of monstrous anti-egalitarian, neo-liberal crypto-fascist antichrist. Naomi Klein, for instance, has partly built her noxious career on blaming Friedman personally for every single problem faced by every single person in the third world. Anecdotally, you will encounter leftists who make retarded statements like, “there is a place in hell reserved for Milton Friedman”. Whenever a child dies, at least one socialist will believe that Friedman personally strangled it.
Much like hero worship, demonization tends to be unintelligent and emotional. It is also true that certain people will automatically hate anyone who suggests that inequality has its advantages, or that greed is not necessarily evil. It is, though, both striking and odd that Friedman is so vilified.
True, he was a free marketeer who opposed big government. However, like many libertarians, Friedman advocated positions that many on the left hold. Indeed, in many cases, he was personally instrumental in causing socially liberal policies to be passed. Further, Friedman was actually markedly moderate, and his actual views were often a million miles from the sociopathic ideologue of leftist fantasy (indeed, many libertarians have viewed him as being much too moderate).
Here is a list of facts that leftists should learn about Milton Friedman before they dance on his grave:
1) Economic moderation
Friedman is often painted as the epitome of free market economics. It is true that he was probably the most influential advocate of free market ideas in the 20th century. However, Friedman cannot be seen as an “extreme” free marketeer or even a “purist”.
He was able to make suggestions for the current system, even where he disagreed with it. So, for example, although he was sympathetic to free banking, he suggested numerous policies for currently existing central banks. His wider stance on monetary policy was also far more statist than that of the Austrian School. For instance, according to Friedman, an activist Federal Reserve could have prevented a decrease in the money supply and thereby have averted the Great Depression.
Likewise, Friedman allowed for government intervention and ownership in some instances. He held that governments could provide genuine public goods (albeit without the protection of a legal monopoly). He also held other atypical positions. For example, unlike the classic libertarian adherence to the Gold Standard, Friedman was an advocate of floating exchange rates.
2) Economic credentials
No matter how much spin you employ, there is no way around the fact that Friedman was a very important and influential economist. Leaving aside ideology, Friedman’s ideas have entered mainstream economic discourse, and he is certainly an “economist’s economist”. From the “permanent income hypothesis” and the “natural rate of unemployment” to his work in monetary history and economic methodology, Friedman had a massive impact on the discipline.
Indeed, it is in this regard that people on the left tend to have respect for Friedman. Paul Krugman, for example, displayed significant praise and respect in the obituary he wrote for Friedman. If you know anything about economics, Friedman’s inputs cannot be ignored. Even the strongest Keynesians need to work with Friedman’s evidence against the Phillips Curve.
Having said that, most people, and socialists in particular, know nothing about economics. The fact that a handful of academic liberals accept Friedman’s significant in the economic sphere does little to offset the mainstream distortions of his legacy. I have genuinely heard leftists say something like, “Keynes was a better economist than Friedman because he cared more about the working class”. Admittedly, one can be sympathetic and just surmise that such people are not competent language users.
Friedman is well known for being a critic of the welfare state and the US Social Security system in particular. Likewise, he was highly critical of minimum wage laws. However, he was also a supporter of a basic income. Friedman advocated a “negative income tax” for the poorest in society as a replacement of current welfare measures. In the simplest terms, those below a certain level of income would be able to claim more money from deductions and allowances than they would pay through tax. The amount would be set at a level that allowed a basic minimum standard of living.
Amidst contemporary clamouring for increases in minimum wages, Friedman’s proposal appears to be a superior alternative. Unlike welfare programs, a basic income would allow people to choose how to allocate their money (rather than having to utilise the monopoly “provided” by the state), and, unlike minimum wage laws, a negative income tax would not have an adverse effect on employment.
Further, under Friedman’s system, working extra hours would ensure a higher after-tax-income. Bearing in mind the wasteful bureaucracy that is required to run the welfare state, a basic income model would also probably be cheaper for the taxpayer. It is also a thoroughly “progressive” policy.
4) Social policy
Friedman was not just an economic libertarian. Across the board, he favoured policies based on individual rights and liberty. He supported gay rights (notably same-sex marriage, before it was fashionable), opposed the war on drugs, supported legalising drugs and prostitution, and was a moderate on foreign policy (he opposed both Iraq Wars, for instance). Even his oft cited “support” of August Pinochet’s economic reforms in Chile was belied by his constant criticism of the dictator’s authoritarian actions.
5) His greatest achievement
This technically goes with his views on social policy, but, as his own self-described “most important accomplishment”, it warrants a section to itself. Milton Friedman was the one of the main driving forces behind the abolition of the draft in the USA. Conscription is always repugnant. Forcing people to kill and be killed against their will is one of the closest things to genuine evil that can be conceived. In the context of the ludicrous and unjustified Vietnam War, it was particularly distasteful.
Given the massive moral progress (most) Western countries have had on this front, it is interesting to note that, when Friedman advocated an all-volunteer-military in 1962’s Capitalism and Freedom, opposing conscription was a controversial stance. Especially for someone who wasn’t part of the student left and utilised a shower.
More than opposing conscription in theory, Friedman worked inside government to end the draft. He headed a committee to oversee a potential change to a volunteer military during the Nixon administration and provided a constant anti-conscription perspective within the halls of power. He regarded his role in removing the draft to be his most important accomplishment, hardly the perspective of a right-wing monster.
This is not to say that all criticism of Friedman is invalid. Austrians and Keynesians alike can provide legitimate arguments against aspects of the monetarist and Chicago perspectives. Likewise, anarcho-capitalists and big-government liberals can fairly take issue with Friedman’s perspective on the correct balance of market and state. Personally, I was very disappointed to discover that he was an apologist for the military-industrial-complex.
However, if you are going to criticise someone, you had better be precise over what you’re criticising them for and you had better get your facts right. Saying “he was a fascist right-wing monster who ate third world babies” is moronic, and missing Friedman’s other accomplishments because you hate capitalism is, at best, ignorant.