Will there be another Milton Friedman?

by on August 31, 2009 at 6:27 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Dan Klein, guest-blogging at AustrianEconomists, poses the question and says no, there will not be a classical liberal advocate of comparable stature.  At least not anytime soon:

the postwar re-awakenings, bold thinkers defied the cultural ruts of
their times. They rediscovered pieces of the liberal understanding.
Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan, Tullock, Rothbard, Kirzner, Alchian,
Sowell, Coase, Bauer, Simon and Demsetz developed new statements of
parts of liberal wisdom. Because it had been dead and buried, it now
seemed fresh and original. They earned status as epic figures by fresh
pioneering and academic kudos. But what they formulated and taught to
all of us was the low-hanging fruit of all that had been forgotten.  I’m
not saying that everything they teach had been taught 150 years prior.
But a lot of it had, and the basic verities pretty much all had….

I don’t think that a clone of Milton Friedman could today become Milton Friedman. To get on in Econ he’d have to do a lot more math, and identify with “normal scientists.” Back in the day, Hayek, Coase, and Buchanan could eschew math and still end up with Nobel prizes. Not today.

Normal scientists won’t embrace you academically if you don’t seem like their
kind. You would have to become their kind. You wouldn’t develop liberal
vision and motivation. Or, if you did you wouldn’t become first among
your peers at a top department (even, that is, if you had the
endowments of a Milton Friedman).

The culture generally is becoming more fragmented, because of technology. But technology is making the academic discipline more integrated and monolithic, even at the international level. There is no “freshwater” vs.
“saltwater” and so on. It is like the baseball player market, one big
pyramid. The top departments are alike and the rest strive to maintain
their standing in the pyramid.

Regardless of academic standing, how is the modern clone of Milton Friedman to cut
a figure? The low-hanging fruit has been plucked and digested by the
liberal movement. A new young brilliant dynamo could write a nice book
like Free to Choose or Road to Serfdom, but who would care? It’s all available in another dozen books that have appeared since 1960.

There is more at the link and of course you can see the link to David Hume's ideas about the posts of honour being filled.  I agree with Dan.

capitalistimperialistpig August 31, 2009 at 7:43 am

It seems to me that Dan, and you, are just arguing for a fashion industry interpretation of economics – that distinction can only be achieved by picking the right moment to raise the hemlines rather than finding original insights into how the world works. That would explain a lot about why prominent economists are so divided about the causes and cures for economic calamity…

Carl August 31, 2009 at 8:24 am

Do we even need another Milton Friedman? Henry Hazlitt and Ayn Rand perhaps generated more interest in 19th Century liberalism among laymen than MF. Neither had Econ Ph.D’s and if I am correct HH never earned a bachelors degree. They were amateurs and yet through their popular writings legions of confused people were taught how to think beyond the immediate consequences of a governmental policy and how a capitalist society was both optimal and moral.

Dan Cole August 31, 2009 at 8:34 am

There is a deeper point here about the detrimental effect of mathematics on economics – a point Herbert Simon made frequently in his wonderful autobiography. New and good ideas in economics do not come from math. Although they may be supported by math, good economic ideas come from creative thinking about human behavior, beliefs, and interactions.

H. August 31, 2009 at 9:05 am

Maybe classical liberal ideas and economic theories are just wrong or outdated. Have you ever thought of that possibility?

“To get on in Econ he’d have to do a lot more math, and identify with “normal scientists.†

If free markets work, then you should be able to defend them with the math and clear assumptions of modern economics. Why don’t you?

Edmond August 31, 2009 at 9:17 am

Can someone elaborate on Tyler’s Hume reference? Are the relevant comments somewhere in “Enquiries on Human Understanding” or in some other work?

Seward August 31, 2009 at 9:27 am


Oh, and for my money Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” is the least important of his works.

Christian August 31, 2009 at 9:46 am

People are forgetting that, for his day, Friedman was considered quite sophisticated methodologically. And, for that matter, Krugman, Stiglitz, Arrow, & Sen’s work is also quite sophisticated — for the 1960s and 1970s — when they wrote. The point that is lost is that all of these understood that when writing for a broader audience to dispose of that and present the basic insight.

Math is not about sophistication, but clarity of ideas and drawing up the full implications of an assumption.
The alternative is too so broadly literate in the field such as Schumpeter, Hayek, Hirschman or Friedman that you can engage with critics/skeptics fruitfully.

It seems to me that a lot — though not all — of libertarian/Austrian/classic liberal followers either a)don’t take work done outside of their persuasion seriously, b) take a “humanities” approach to economics where economics provides a scientific veneer to a branch of political philosophy or objectivist thought, c)seems to be more interested in preserving the authentic laws or truisms of foundational figures — there is a lot more about the biographies and texts of Hayek, Rand, Friedman etc. than Keynesians about Keynes or Hansen or Hicks.

Regardless of the persuasion, Nobel Prizes seem to go to individuals who advance the debate — paradigm shifts, not preserve previous wisdom or provide increasingly involuted developments of another’s basic insights.

There is plenty of good thought and research in this perspective, but if the well seems dry, it may be because that it is as much ideology as insight at times.

dearieme August 31, 2009 at 10:55 am

This is consistent with my suspicion that Economics consists of two parts, viz (1) Footnotes to Smith and Ricardo, and (2) Error.

Adam August 31, 2009 at 11:16 am

Don’t write off the “normal” achievements of the group so easily. Buchanan was into mathematics before he began to write about constitutions. He’s still posing interesting models, such as his approach to the anti-commons. Friedman stood out for his contributions to normal theory, especially his analysis of consumption, permanent income, and monetary history and policy. His price theory textbook was a best seller for years.

There are top normal scientists who seem to have classical liberal leanings. Edward Leamer, Robert Lucas, and Edward Prescott come to mind. But none seem to have the feisty fluency of Milton Friedman. Friedman was simply brilliant and intellectually determined to make certain the truth was not ignored, both in his academic writing and in his public speaking.

Steve Sailer August 31, 2009 at 5:26 pm

If you look at the recent record of the economics profession — e.g., the conventional wisdom that massive immigration would be beneficial to California’s economy (by the way, how’s that working out lately?) — you’ll notice that the big low-hanging fruit is to incorporate within economics the findings of human biodiversity studies.

Mike Huben August 31, 2009 at 8:45 pm

We already have another Milton Friedman: Paul Krugman. What? You wanted somebody with a crank right-wing concern for liberty as long as it didn’t cost the wealthy anything? You wanted somebody who would have privatized social security, little expecting the current meltdown of the markets? That’s awfully picky.

Why not just settle for a brilliant Nobel Prize winning professor, public intellectual, advisor and economist? So he’s progressive and not a libertarian crank: I’m happy.

mulp September 1, 2009 at 1:11 am

A modern day Milton Friedman could start off updating the Monetary History of the United States, adding the floating of the dollar, price controlled expansive monetary policy, disinflation, three more rounds of financial crisis, bank failures and several credit crunches, the appearance and disappearance of a shadow banking system, and a huge shift in international money flows.

Plus, the digitizing and scanning of printed material would open up lots of added data gather and processing from the 19th and 20th century, something Anna and Milton had to do manually, would allow expanding the data sets used in the original.

I’m confident that would result in more insights into both monetary theory as well as new insights into monetary policy. What strikes me as unique about their work was the long time span of the data, and the intimate knowledge they had of the data and the events along the way.

Underground Hypnosis September 1, 2009 at 10:15 am

Usually the stars are those who are familiar with the most cutting edge techniques in econ and then do interesting things with them. In applied work, diff and diff and randomization can be done by lots of folks who could never score well on the Putnam.

Voltaire in '08 September 2, 2009 at 8:59 am

With all due respect to Dan and Tyler, Dan’s account misunderstands the nature of originality (or “cutting a figure,” as he puts it). Originality is almost entirely a matter of imaginative adaptation; there are very few genuinely “new” ideas available for creating. Free to Choose was about adapting liberal ideas to the specific circumstances of the day, across a whole raft of different issues, rather than creating or rediscovering new ideas. And since our daily circumstances are always changing—indeed, are changing faster than ever in the information age—liberalism of the Friedmanite sort will never be obsolete. There will be a dozen new Free to Choose-like books over the next 50 years, we just don’t know precisely what circumstances they will be designed to address or how they will do so.

The surprising revival and recurrence of Adam Smith’s essential vision—his “natural system of liberty”—over the past 2 plus centuries, and the demonstrable unsustainability of socialism and of the corporatism that is again unfolding before us at present, as systemic alternatives, are reason enough to believe that with a modicum of imagination, something like Friedman’s approach will be a central part of the conversation for the foreseeable future.

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