| Dan Klein | --- Guest Blog Post ---
Pete and I were discussing why there is no Milton Friedman nowadays. He invited me to write up what I was saying, so here goes.
The liberalism that emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries has been the jewel of prosperous civilization. Liberalism had been a way of thinking, organized around a core vocabulary: liberty, freedom, liberal, property, contract, equality, equity, justice, law, rule of law, and rights.
That core vocabulary became confused especially in the period 1880 to 1940. Classical liberalism was eviscerated and collapsed during the early generations of the 20th century, reaching a nadir around 1940. The figure that best illuminates this period as liberal devastation and nadir is H.L. Mencken. Perhaps to a fault, his liberal wisdom shined as eccentric, taboo-smashing, solitary iconoclasm.
Coming out of the Second World War –- waged against regimes even more statist than the western allies, waged as freedom versus evil despotisms –- and going forward, there occurred some liberal re-awakening. Everywhere, the bad consequences of statism started to show. Illiberals became somewhat more diffident about statist aesthetics and sentiments.
But the culture never made a return to any solid liberal understanding. The postwar generations have largely continued in the cultural ruts of the reactionary period 1880-1940. Liberal enlightenment had not been a matter of foundational, separate social sciences — at least not in the Scottish enlightenment. It was a nexus of verities, by-and-large truths formulated from the core vocabulary, making for a presumption of liberty. Exceptions to liberty were to be treated as exceptional and bear the burden of proof.
With 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.
Other figures, like Hazlitt and Rand, also achieved epic status by rejuvenating ideas that had been simply lost.
The rejuvenation era, say 1960-1985, allowed some air of at least intellectual ascendancy. It was possible for Milton and Rose Friedman to write Free to Choose as though the ideas they were espousing were normal.
But one of the things that makes
Compare with Richard Epstein, a classical liberal prince and one of the closest we have to cultural royalty and epic figure in his cohort. Epstein is at a top school, but he is not first among his peers—he will presumably be regarded at NYU as eccentric ideologically—and Law is not as authoritative as Econ. Econ has had a mystique because it had been the field with the most liberal conscience. That’s still true, but nowadays Econ is more like the other fields.
Robert Nozick was at Harvard, but not first among his peers. He didn’t want the pressure of being Joe Libertarian Philosopher, and not long after ASU withdrew from political philosophy and never returned.
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, Road to Serfdom, or Knowledge and Decisions, but who would care? It’s all available in another dozen books that have appeared since 1960.
In art, every generation craves contemporary renditions offering rediscovery of elemental things, and even the older generation welcomes novelty, creating ongoing demand for new masters. But the liberal verities are honored from duty, not savored for their beauty. We’ve learned the place of “buying and abstention from buying”—or “b and a from b.” Most of the world hasn’t. The wannabe new Milton Friedman addresses the world and explains b and a from b, but he competes with the epic figures, now mostly deceased, as well as 50 other aspirants, and fails to interest those of us who know about b and a from b. We applaud his efforts and encourage him to keep at it, but we don’t read what he writes.
Today most of the political culture is tepid, bound by status-quo policies, led by establishment players, and framed by “liberal versus conservative” – a framework that epitomizes the breakdown of liberal understanding. To get play in mainstream culture, one must bargain to an extent that permits little of the inspirational quality that
I think that there was something very special about the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – the era in which the true liberals first regrouped, regained their footing, and made a new intellectual stand against the tide that had come in around 1890 and that still mostly engulfs the political culture.
But history rolls on. If there is truth in this depressing narrative, we may hope that understanding of that truth will help to retire it.