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What Bush Could Learn From Milton Friedman

This column was written by Eric Alterman

Ten or so years ago, the good folks at The Nation were nice enough to send me on a week-long cruise of Alaska put on by National Review for its readers. (I did not realize at the time that I was actually doing recognizance for the wiley and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky's business plans. I believe you can read about that, in a piece I wrote called "Heart of Whiteness," if you buy this book.) I had already gotten to know Bill Buckley a bit writing my first book, a history of punditry — but I was especially eager to meet Milton Friedman, who was, after all, the most influential American thinker alive.

Like today's neocons, and liberals back in the olden days, Friedman believed in the power of ideas to move society. He hurled himself into the Keynesian conventional wisdom of his day with popular tracts relentlessly attacking the notion of positive government interference in the economy — beginning with Capitalism and Freedom in 1962 and sustaining this consistent line through the best-selling election-year tracts "Free to Choose" (1980) and "The Tyranny of the Status Quo" (1984), both co-authored with his wife, Rose.

Friedman's ideas were generally considered beyond the pale of reason when he began his attack on the Keynesian orthodoxy; he was the only member of the profession to advise Barry Goldwater in 1964. Through his Newsweek column, along with his bestselling books, a few strategically edited television series, and his association with counter-establishment think tanks (particularly AEI and the Hoover Institution), this bald, diminutive, ghetto-born Jewish professor managed to re-educate a nation on the principles of economic theory and establish himself as perhaps the single most influential economic theorist since Karl Marx. As his intellectual adversary John Kenneth Galbraith puts it, "the age of John Maynard Keynes gave way to the age of Milton Friedman."

Friedman's academic delineation of what he termed "monetarism," in which the health of the economy rested on the government's ability to provide a stable, tightly-controlled money supply, eventually divided the profession between various factions of monetarists and Keynesians (with occasional Marxist outliers in selected institutions) and earned Friedman the economists' equivalent of the Nobel Prize in 1976. But by the dawn of the age of Friedman, his most important academic work was nearly two decades old.

This made him really old by the time I met him, which was 1996, I think. It also made him cuter: like his wife and frequent co-author Rose, the guy was barely five feet tall, if that. And speaking from the podium, he had a habit I understood and appreciated, which was saying stuff designed to mess up his audience. On the cruise, for instance, he announced that Norman Thomas's Socialist Party had been "the most influential party in the history of this country," as "every one of its 1928 platform planks had later been enacted."

During the cocktail hour on the Lido Deck, I sought out my fellow Norman Thomas devotee. Rather than doing what I should have done, which was ask him what the hell was going to happen with the Dow, I listened to him expound on the great equalizing forces of the "invisible hand." In a discussion of Vietnam and globalization, he demanded, "Is anyone forcing those Vietnamese to work in Nike factories at the point of a gun?"

Still, we schmoozed regularly during the week. Friedman mentioned during one of our conversations that he did not believe in public education, at all. I said I thought this was a bit hypocritical, since he had received one, and it had allowed him to grow up to be the most influential public intellectual in the country, if not the world. I forget what he said, but later during the cruise, we got into a discussion about whether capitalism was, as The New Republic likes to say (implicitly), "good for the Jews." Miltie pointed to his wife, himself, and me, and explained, "Well it's been good for all three of us, and we're all Jews."

In the next few days, you are going to read a lot of crocodile tears about Friedman and his influence in conservative publications. If you hear anything from George W. Bush, the members of his government, a Republican senator or congressman, or any supporter thereto anywhere in the media, do Friedman's legacy a favor and tell them to just shut up.

Milton Friedman believed in nothing so much as cutting government expenditures and reducing its role in the economy and in the lives of its citizens. That liar in the White House, together with his corrupt supporters in Congress, on the other hand, believe in presiding over the largest negative budget swing in American history: from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000, the year Bush was elected, to a deficit of $412 billion, or 3.6 percent of GDP, four years later. They believe in $1.5 trillion dollar Medicare bills and $12.3 billion transportation bills featuring 6,376 earmarks. And don't get me started about what Friedman would have thought about a federal government deciding whether Terri Schiavo would remain in her vegetative, brain-dead state despite the expressed wishes of her husband and the laws of her state.

Friedman was no progressive. He did not care a whit about fairness in the economy or the accumulation of wealth and power by the few over the many. Judging by the nature of his allies in South America, he couldn't be bothered much about human rights, either. But he was honest about his intentions and his arguments and was willing to live with the consequences. There's hardly a single person with the word "Bush administration" on their resume who can say the same.
By Eric Alterman
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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