Return to entry on Milton Friedman

By Michael M. Weinstein

The New York Times, July 4, 1999

Milton Friedman has been the intellectual spark plug of the conservative movement for 60 years, providing sharp-edged analysis in support of causes from monetarism to school vouchers. Monetarism—the doctrine that the Federal Reserve could keep the economy on an even keel merely by allowing the money supply to grow slowly and evenly over time—was offered as an antidote to the Keynesian doctrine that Government needed to manipulate spending and taxes to keep the economy out of depression.

Throughout his career, Mr. Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, has rarely sought intellectual compromise for the sake of forging ties with academic foes. Where fellow conservatives would celebrate capitalism by pointing to large charitable gifts by corporations, for example, Mr. Friedman would stick to the unpopular logic of his free-market ideas, proclaiming that chief executives had no right taking shareholders’ assets to suit their private tastes—charitable or otherwise.

So when asked to identify his biggest academic blunder, Mr. Friedman named a time when he went against his intellectual grain. In the early 1970’s, he sought common ground between Keynesian and monetarist formulations. The idea was to translate profound disagreements—those that no amount of debate could possibly resolve—into simpler, specific quarrels over a few concrete relationships, like the impact of output changes on prices. In theory, at least, such quarrels might be resolved by statistical studies.

He acknowledges that the effort failed. Keynesians agree—proof, some say, that monetarism is intellectually deficient. But Mr. Friedman chalks up the failure of his rare attempt at compromise to the "naive" thought "that by putting my ideas in Keynesian language I would make any dent on the Keynesians."

Return to entry on Milton Friedman