Robert Solow on Hayek and Friedman and MPS

The TNR essay is here, prompted by the publication of Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Great Depression.  Excerpt:

The MPS was no more influential inside the economics profession. There were no publications to be discussed. The American membership was apparently limited to economists of the Chicago School and its scattered university outposts, plus a few transplanted Europeans. “Some of my best friends” belonged. There was, of course, continuing research and debate among economists on the good and bad properties of competitive and noncompetitive markets, and the capacities and limitations of corrective regulation. But these would have gone on in the same way had the MPS not existed. It has to be remembered that academic economists were never optimistic about central planning. Even discussion about the economics of some conceivable socialism usually took the form of devising institutions and rules of behavior that would make a socialist economy function like a competitive market economy (perhaps more like one than any real-world market economy does). Maybe the main function of the MPS was to maintain the morale of the free-market fellowship.

Solow neglects to mention that Milton Friedman turned out to be right on most of the issues he discussed (though targeting money doesn’t work), that MPS economists shaped at least two decades of major and indeed beneficial economic reforms across the world, or that some number of the economists at MIT envied the growth performance of the Soviet Union and that such remarks were found in the most popular economics textbook in the profession.  You can consider this essay a highly selective, error-laden, and disappointing account of a topic which could in fact use more serious scrutiny.

By the way, if you read Solow’s own 1962 review of Maurice Dobb on economic planning (JSTOR gate), it shows very little understanding of Hayek’s central points on these topics, which by then were decades old.  Arguably it shows “negative understanding” of Hayek.

Or to see how important Friedman’s work on money and also expectations was, try comparing it with…um…the Solow and Samuelson 1960 piece on the Phillips Curve (JSTOR), which Friedman pretty much refuted point by point.  Here is the closing two sentences of that piece:

We have not here entered upon the important question of what feasible institutional reforms might be introduced to lessen the degree of disharmony between full employment and price stability.These could of course involve such wide-ranging issues as direct price and wage controls, antiunion and antitrust legislation, and a host of other measures hopefully designed to move the American Phillips’ curves downward and to the left.

And Solow wonders why the Mont Pelerin Society and monetarism were needed.  Solow should have started his piece with a sentence like “Milton Friedman was not right about everything, but most of his criticisms of my earlier views have been upheld by subsequent economic theory and practice….”

Greg Ransom…telephone!

For the pointer I thank Peter Boettke.


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