I have been reading The Great Persuasion Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression by Angus Burgin (ostensibly in order to write an article on Michael Polanyi) and was taken with this Chapter on Milton Friedman.
I hadn’t really crystalised for myself until the chapter pointed it out Friedman’s revolutionary modus operandi. Namely:
- his preference for arguing about means and not ends,
- his desire for persuasive engagement with those who disagreed with him and
- the way this framed disagreement productively
- the way this focused his energies on what I’ve called ‘policy hacks’.
I think these are very good things and discover that I’ve been channelling him – and that, though it’s not canvassed in the chapter, Keynes is similar with all his ‘plans’ for this and that – though Keynes’s plans were typically plans for the economy as a whole, and not the recipe book of ideas like the purchaser/provider split that I suspect began as debating points with Friedman.
We could do with more of this on the left.
He really was the economist as engineer rather than scientist in the sense that Herbert Simon spoke of the sciences as being about knowing the world and the professions as being about designing a better world. The chapter also makes clear how untutored and uninterested Friedman was in methodology or philosophy. In this he wouldn’t be the first person to have had a big impact on the methodology of a subject without having much idea of what he was talking about.
Anyway, regarding the four points above, Friedman gave himself an unfair advantage which was:
- the extreme simplicity, not to say simple-mindedness of his basic view of how the world did and should work which, as the chapter makes clear, took wing as he progressed through his life. Not believing in estate taxes or anti-discrimination law was pretty much the low point. There was also South Africa and Chile. But then he did think of his greatest achievement as getting rid of conscription. So it takes all sorts.
The first four points offered nifty rhetoric and recipes for targeted change for all seasons. And the final point attached it all to a radically cut down toy model not just of the economy but of the whole social world. This was a world in which capitalism, like democracy, is better than all the alternatives tried and therefore this creates a presumption in its favour – for schools, healthcare, inheritances and monopolies – right up to but not including the point at which the case becomes absurd. It was a very effective bit of performance art. Milton might not have been able to charm the birds from the trees, but, judging from the way things are travelling today, he successfully charmed the devil out of his lair.