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The Conservative Curmudgeon
October 2, 2008

Chicago Faculty Opposes Private Institute Honoring Milton Friedman
by Allan C. Brownfeld

Two years after his death in November 2006, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, a widely respected champion and philosopher of freedom, has become an embarrassment to many former colleagues at the University of Chicago.

More than 100 tenured faculty members have signed a letter and petition opposing plans by the university to establish a research institute named after the legendary free-market economist. The institute, which would be paid for by private donations, would conduct research in economics, medicine, public policy, and law.

Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the history of religions who helped draft the letter and petition, declared that, “People are concerned about the blurring of the line between Friedman’s technical work in economics and his fairly well-known persona as a political advocate of a very pure, free-market conservative or neoliberal position, where the market is the solution to everything.”

The institute was proposed by the economics faculty last year and approved by various faculty committees. Twenty-five faculty members, researchers, and alumni from the University of Chicago have won the Nobel Prize in economics, many of them taught by Friedman. Three Nobel winners — Gary S. Becker, Robert E. Lucas, Jr., and James J. Heckman — sit on the seven-member committee overseeing the institute.

Becker, an economics professor in the Graduate School of Business, said the institute is a way the university can “compete much more effectively against Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford — schools much better endowed than we are.” Becker, a former student and close friend of Friedman’s, said that if Friedman were alive he would be proud of the institute and would take the controversy in stride. “No one likes to be accused of things, but he was very single-mindedly devoted to doing the best he could to get at the truth,” Becker said. He could take controversy. He was tough."

One need not agree with all of Milton Friedman’s economic and political views to recognize that he was one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential advocates of freedom.

Indeed, few men and women in our time have had as much influence in advancing free societies as did Friedman. He insisted that largely unimpeded private competition produced better results than government systems. “Try talking French with someone who studied in public school,” he once said, “then with a Berlitz graduate.” In the area of education, he was an early advocate of vouchers to provide freedom of choice to the poor, a freedom already possessed by the affluent.

One of his most famous arguments dealt with the causes of the Depression. It was promoted not by changes in tariff laws or by the stock market crash, he said, but by the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to shrink the money supply for fear of inflation in
l929 and again in l936. Those choices choked the life out of the economy and exacerbated a bad situation, he stated in A Monetary History of the United States, l867-l960 (l963), which he coauthored with Anna J. Schwartz. The book is considered the definitive history of the nation’s money supply.

It was Milton Friedman’s belief that free enterprise was the only form of economic organization consistent with other freedoms. In his important book, Capitalism and Freedom, he pointed out that, “The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables one to offset the other.”

He declared that, “Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a monetary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated — a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.”

Even those who disagreed with some of Friedman's ideas had great respect for him and for his influence on America and the world. Laurence Summers, a former President of Harvard and Secretary of the Treasury, recalls that, “From what I’ve heard, Milton Friedman’s participation on a government commission on the volunteer military in the late l960s was a kind of intellectual version of the play Twelve Angry Men. Gradually, through force of persistent argument and marshaling of evidence, he brought his fellow commission members around to the previously unthinkable view that both our national security and our broader interest would be served by a volunteer military.”

Beyond Milton Friedman the economist, writes Summers, “...there was Milton Friedman the public philosopher. Ask reformers in any one of the countries behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain where they learned to contemplate alternatives to Communism during the closed era before the Berlin Wall fell, and they will often tell you about reading Milton Friedman and realizing how different their world would be.... Milton Friedman and I probably never voted the same way in any election... I have my list of areas where I believe Mr. Friedman oversimplified or was simply wrong. Nonetheless, like many others, I feel that I have lost a hero — a man whose success demonstrates that great ideas convincingly advanced can change the lives of people around the world.”

In an era when most of his fellow economists were advocating one or another form of government control of the economy, Friedman became an ardent crusader for capitalism and economic freedom. He did not advocate capitalism because of sympathy for the rich. Friedman himself was born in New York, the son of poor Jewish immigrants. His father died when Milton was l5, leaving his mother with very little money to pay for their son’s education. His advocacy of capitalism came because in a society based upon free enterprise, all citizens — both the rich and the poor, and the majority, who were middle-class — would prosper. More important, freedom could exist only when the state did not control the economic lives of its citizens.

How sad that, instead of being proud of Milton Friedman's accomplishments, these former colleagues at the University of Chicago seek to prevent the establishment of an institute named for him. Hopefully, the university will resist these efforts to impose a narrow liberal orthodoxy upon a distinguished institution.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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