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Defending Milton Friedman From James Buchanan and Peter Boettke

Summary:
In his recent Econlib article, “The Role of the Economist in a Free Society: The Art of Political Economy,” George Mason University economics professor Peter Boettke writes: After [James] Buchanan left the University of Virginia, he wrote in a letter to [Rutledge] Vining: “My own worry, which you do not express so directly as I do, stems from the step taken by such an idealized professional assistant when he takes it on himself to propose changes in structure, as if he has a direct line to God. This is the arrogance I talk about, and about which I think Frank Knight was also worried.” But Buchanan, in what might surprise the modern day reader of this letter, singles out as a prime example of an economist violating this Knightian stricture none other than Milton

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Defending Milton Friedman From James Buchanan and Peter Boettke

In his recent Econlib article, “The Role of the Economist in a Free Society: The Art of Political Economy,” George Mason University economics professor Peter Boettke writes:

After [James] Buchanan left the University of Virginia, he wrote in a letter to [Rutledge] Vining: “My own worry, which you do not express so directly as I do, stems from the step taken by such an idealized professional assistant when he takes it on himself to propose changes in structure, as if he has a direct line to God. This is the arrogance I talk about, and about which I think Frank Knight was also worried.” But Buchanan, in what might surprise the modern day reader of this letter, singles out as a prime example of an economist violating this Knightian stricture none other than Milton Friedman. Friedman, Buchanan writes, “thinks and talks as if he is telling people what they should want, in terms of basic values, which is not at all his role, or so it seems to me. This is arrogant behavior, which Knight would never have engaged in.” Buchanan admits that it is extremely difficult to avoid falling into this trap, but concludes that nevertheless “we should avoid this where possible.”

The tone of the rest of his article suggests that Boettke agrees with this critique of Milton Friedman.

I don’t get it. I knew Friedman pretty well and I knew his work even better. I guess it’s true that Friedman told people that they should want freedom and a lot of his policy positions were based on the idea that freedom was good. The issue on which he arguably had his biggest impact was in making the case, on a commission appointed by President Nixon, for abolishing the military draft. [I write about that at some length here.] So you could say that Friedman told people that they should have the basic value of not wanting to enslave people.

I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing Buchanan had in mind in criticizing Friedman. I rather doubt it, but I don’t know because neither Boettke’s article nor the Buchanan letter specifies what he had in mind.

Boettke also buttresses his case by quoting from David Colander’s and Craig Freedman’s recent book, Where Economics Went Wrong: Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism. I acquired that book some months ago and put it down at the end of Chapter 5 because it was too squishy. There was a criticism in there about Friedman but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the criticism was. At one point the authors quote Friedman defending laissez-faire in prostitution and apparently the reader is supposed to conclude something from that. But I can’t figure out what. And I started out with a slight bias in favor of the book because I’ve been a fan of much of Colander’s earlier work.

In short, I had the same reaction to Colander and Freedman’s book that I had to the Buchanan letter that Pete Boettke quoted.

Postscript:

Maybe Buchanan’s objection is to Friedman’s telling people they should want a monetary rule specifying the growth rate of the money supply that the Federal Reserve should adhere to. I gave up my belief in that rule in the early 1980s, but it would be strange for Buchanan, who, to his credit, was an ardent fan of constitutional rules that rein in government behavior, to be a critic of a constraining money supply rule.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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