Today would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday and, predictably, people on the internet are stumbling over themselves to give rapturous applause.
In his Nobel lecture, Friedman famously claimed that it was possible to do value-free economics. However, Friedman’s own experience in the policy realm either disproves that claim, or shows Friedman to have had some truly perverse moral values. In “Friedman, Positive Economics, and the Chicago Boys,” Eric Schliesser (Gent) explains the problems with Friedman’s methodology, in part through the lens of his disastrous “shock treatment” advocacy as an adviser to the dictator of Chile:
In this paper I investigate two denials in Milton Friedman’s Nobel Lecture (1976). The first is [i] the denial that ‘Economics and its fellow social sciences’ ought to be ‘regarded more nearly as branches of philosophy.’ The second is [ii] the denial that economics is ‘enmeshed with values at the outset because they deal with human behaviour’. I show that Friedman’s appeal to his methodology in the Nobel lecture fails on conceptual grounds internal to Friedman’s methodology. Moreover, I show that the failure is related to a broader systematic problem: when properly understood, Friedman’s methodology shows that positive economics is (in a non-trivial sense) enmeshed in values. In order to account for Friedman’s overreaching, I turn to the charged social context regarding Friedman’s purported involvement with the Chicago Boys, who were then serving Chilean Dictator Pinochet. I conclude by explaining why I re-open the old chestnut of values in positive science. The episode allows me to raise a question of fundamental import about the relationship between expertise and society.
If you’re not familiar with that historical episode, the gist is that, after the people of Chile democratically elected a leader whose left-of-center policies alarmed the libertarian Cold Warriors, Washington supported a fascist coup to overthrow that democracy, led by a general named Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet devastated Chile through open military oppression but also through radical economic policies suggested by Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys” (and let’s not forget Hayek, who was also supportive).
It is possible to celebrate a person’s academic and intellectual achievements while also rejecting their stunted values and personal failings. Sometimes, the latter call the former into doubt.