Milton Friedman – the last conservative?

A new biography of the great economist and public intellectual is also a masterly account of post-War US history


Your starter for ten: who was the most influential Jew of the post-war world?

Ben-Gurion would, I imagine, be most people’s answer. But for the breadth and depth of his influence, I would suggest Milton Friedman. The economist, who was born to Jewish working- class immigrants in Brooklyn in 1912, changed the world.

Jennifer Burns manages in her new biography the near-impossible feat of doing justice to Friedman, both as an economist and more widely as to quote the book’s title in a nod to how US conservatism has been degraded in the era of Trump “the last conservative”. As she writes: “Many aspects of our contemporary world that today seem commonplace have their origins in one of Friedman’s seemingly crazy ideas. If you’ve had taxes withheld from a paycheck, planned or postponed a foreign holiday due to the exchange rate, considered the military as a career, wondered if the Federal Reserve really knows what it’s doing, worked at or enrolled your child in a charter school, or gotten into an argument about the pros and cons of universal basic income, you’ve had a brush with Friedman.”

More generally, Friedman, who came of age during the Great Depression and who studied at Chicago and Columbia before moving to Washington, was the intellectual fountainhead of an economic and political movement that reversed the decline of the West and ushered in a new era of growth, prosperity and accountability.

Burns is superb at explaining complicated economic ideas; her elaboration of monetarism, the theory that money supply was the key factor behind inflation and which destroyed the long-held idea of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment, is masterly. In 1963 Friedman and Anna Schwartz outlined this link in their pivotal A Monetary History of the United States. What was once viewed as an outre idea soon became the dominant mechanism through which inflation — the curse of the 1970s — was controlled.

Burns is also fascinating at detailing how Friedman moved from Keynesianism and support for the New Deal in the 1930s towards a form of libertarian economics, such as an early paper that exposed the American Medical Association as a price-fixing cartel.

Price theory became the economic leitmotif of his life, leading to him expounding “a dizzying array of policies with a consistent theme: setting prices free. This idea underlies everything, from Friedman’s support of school vouchers and his calls to abolish the draft to his insistence that governments stop controlling the price of their currencies.”

Although she writes about Friedman the man, Burns is more compelling when she covers Friedman as an economist and, more widely, as probably the leading American public intellectual of the 1970s and 1980s. Friedman had all the technical skills of a professional economist but he was also a brilliant salesman of his ideas, both in economics and politics. His TV series Free To Choose and the book of the same name (translated into more than two dozen languages and selling over a million copies) brought his ideas to a wide public and were hugely influential politically.

Burns captures the optimism that underlaid almost everything he did. His was not a declinist conservatism, and during his life he both witnessed and experienced the diminution of discrimination against Jews and the concomitant opening up of opportunities for the hardworking and the talented. This was of a piece with his belief in the power of markets to liberate people — and to lead them to efficient choices.

What the book does not relate is that Friedman was also a mensch.

As a (rather odd) schoolboy I wrote to Friedman to ask for his autograph. He sent me a beautifully handwritten letter back, which became the beginning of a correspondence that lasted many years. He would ask me how I was doing at school, then university, and what I wanted to do with my life, and he shared stories and details about his own activities. I have no idea why he was willing to spend time corresponding with a nobody and never got to ask him, as we never met. But I treasure his letters.

Burns has written a wonderful biography, but it is more than that.

It is an intellectual history of the US in the last 70 years of the 20th century and, as such, is an important read.

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative

By Jennifer Burns

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