Milton Friedman is quite a revered figure – among economists, conservatives, libertarians and some leftists – partly, of course, because he was a prolific economist, but also in large part due to his debating skills. He is generally perceived as able to shut down arguments from the left with simple, easy to understand, often amusing one liners. However, I have always found him unconvincing, and here I hope to show why.
There will be, of course, numerous conceptual disagreements which I will try not to discuss in this post: the phony market-government dichotomy, where government is some exogenous entity; the general idea that self interest will lead to the best of all outcomes; the invocation of the mythical ‘free market.’ Nor is the purpose of this post to draw attention Friedman’s major intellectual arguments themselves – though I have already done that with his stance on assumptions, corporate social responsibility, and I suppose by proxy I have commented on his interpretation of the Great Depression.
Instead what I want to do here is show Friedman’s general debating techniques are highly questionable. Many of his arguments rest on an abuse of the reductio ad absurdum. Sometimes Friedman was either ignorant about the evidence or just plain dishonest. Many of the ‘facts’ he cites don’t stand up to even a brief fact check. Here are some examples:
Here, Friedman references the late 19th century land deals as ‘minor.’ One billion acres of land is not minor. Much of this land was taken from citizens directly in the interests of privately owned corporations, and/or involved widespread fraud and corruption. The sheer volume of land seized suggests the deals played a massive part in establishing the railway lines, along with many other industries across the U.S. Would these engines of growth have been built if not for the coercive grabbing of masses of land?
The fact is that even cursory glance at social mobility in the United States puts lie to Friedman’s claims about it being high. Similar results hold for most developed countries, generally only changing as they become more Social Democratic.
In general I’ve noticed Friedman makes repeated vague references to ‘all of history,’* for which he never provides specifics, and which are actually completely at odds with the evidence. I can only conclude that what he says is based not on history but on armchair analysis of what must have happened, based on his own logic. But there is strong reason to doubt this logic – as I have discussed in my previous posts A Brief Anti-Economist History and How Natural is Capitalism, Exactly?, Western Capitalism did not just spring out of nowhere due to the magic of the market.
For example, was Friedman aware of hunting restrictions such as the Black Acts, which brutally enforced limits on peasant activity and so contributed to the initial rise in the industrial workforce? The rise in enclosure acts, which did something similar? Is he aware of the large amount of U.S. tariffs during the country’s rise to prominence, and similar trends in other Western countries, as well as more recently developed countries in Asia? Such historical debates are lost in a sea of sweeping assertions about the efficacy of the apparently omnipresent ‘free enterprise system,’ with narratives that would have Friedman fail a first year history essay.
To be sure, as with all historical analysis, there is always room for discussion, but Friedman’s arguments rest upon one interpretation of ‘facts’ that are usually incomplete or a blatant misrepresentation of what actually happened.
So it’s quite easy to find instances of Friedman presenting questionable evidence to support his arguments. But what about his famous purely logical put downs? Do they stand up to scrutiny? Here is quite a widely watched YouTube clip (always worth noting that the young man is not actually Michael Moore):
The issue raised is whether Ford acted immorally by failing to install some safeguarding blocks in their infamous Pinto cars, which resulted in a large amount of deaths. Friedman suggests the problem is amoral, and simply a matter of price: nobody can place an infinite value on a human life, so whether the car should have been released rests on a monetary trade off. Friedman suggests the young man who posed the question is not interested in principle, only price. In fact this is not true; Friedman simply asserts it and builds his argument from there.
A moment’s thought will suggest that the important principle is not price, as Friedman suggested, but human life, as the young man seemed to think. Consider: if the automobile will kill 10,000 people a year unless the defect is fixed, does it really matter how much it will cost to fix the problem? Surely, if fixing the defect in the automobile is affordable, then the defect should be fixed. On the other hand, if fixing the defect in the automobile is not affordable, then defective car should not be released. However, a profit driven firm necessarily insists that lowering costs by not fixing the defect outweighs saving a certain number of lives each year. Friedman abuses the reductio ad absurdum by taking the issue – where it was clear Ford simply should have installed the boxes – out of context, and focusing on price as the important variable.
Here is another example where Friedman abuses the reductio ad absurdum:
What the man posing the question to Friedman is actually alluding to – in a roundabout sort of way – is a simple concept called the ‘income effect:’ reducing somebody’s income via taxation may well increase the amount they work (and empirical studies suggest it does), hence increasing overall production. Of course, if you increase it to 98% you will impoverish people and destroy the economy, but nobody actually suggested that.
Perhaps some might interpret this as cherry picking. So, finally, here is a full interview with Milton Friedman. I will discuss Friedman’s remarks throughout the interview:
(1) At 2:06, the presenter asks if a place such as Central Park would exist in a ‘pure market’ situation. Friedman fails to answer the question directly, but during his response he blames Central Park’s problems during the 1980s on public management. But Central Park is in fact a public private partnership, where the private firm employs 4 out of 5 of people maintaining the park. Again, Friedman either has no idea what he is talking about or is lying.
(2) At 4:10, the presenter brings up Thalidomide. Friedman’s response contains two problems. First, when he says that the FDA stalls potentially beneficial drugs from being used, he fails to distinguish between a Type 1 error – falsely rejecting, say, a perfectly safe drug – and a Type 2 error – failing to reject an unsafe one. Type 1 is generally considered worse on the logic of ‘convicting an innocent person.’
Second, Friedman suggests that the company responsible for Thalidomide did not make a profit, therefore the market would ‘signal’ for it to go bankrupt. I am not sure whether they made a profit in that particular instance. What I am sure of, however, is that the company is still around today. Again, Friedman references facts that are questionable on even a cursory inspection.
Lastly, when Friedman suggests that the airlines will make sure all of its planes are safe, he neglects the ‘weighing up logic’ we saw in the Ford Pinto video. (I am playing Devil’s Advocate, as I don’t think any sane person would defend current U.S. airport security.)
(3) From the beginning the interviewer asks Friedman about the government setting information requirements on packaging. I don’t really understand how Friedman can make the ‘if it mattered a profit seeking firm would take advantage of it’ argument when the interviewer has explicitly stated that the government had to start to enforce information requirements because private firms were not doing it.
Note also that he doesn’t actually engage with the civil rights act question explicitly.
(4) During the final video the interviewer takes Friedman through every government program and Friedman advocates abolishing the majority of them. What confuses me about this part is that Friedman advocated some of these programs elsewhere – for example in his books. In Capitalism and Freedom, he advocated building infrastructure, a negative income tax, school vouchers, praised antitrust laws and more. This highlights Friedman’s dual roles as a propagandist and serious thinker, as a man who was willing to make sensationalist claims and advocate radical policies just to get attention, even if he didn’t truly believe in them. (Some may suggest Friedman was older and had matured here, but there are examples of him criticising these things he advocated elsewhere when he was younger, too. I also see no justification anywhere, ever, for his surreal last minute ‘abolish the federal reserve‘ position).
I don’t mean to suggest what I have to say is the final word; I merely hope to point out that Friedman was somewhat disingenuous and often used logical sleights of hand to get his point across. His interviewers and opponents rarely seemed to press him on it, and to be honest I never saw him go up against anyone particularly formidable. Furthermore, Friedman’s case highlights how little weight should be placed on verbal debates: one liners that seem persuasive at first can evaporate under close scrutiny; facts can be presented with few checks and balances; questions can be dodged and twisted. Friedman was prepared to argue the more ‘free market’ position merely for the sake of it, and was undoubtedly skilled at this role. But once you unpick some of the arguments and cross-check the evidence, his world view leaves a lot to be desired.