Milton Friedman, Archliberal: Why the great free market economist was not a conservative

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Nov 22, 2006 12:01 AM
Milton Friedman, Archliberal: Why the great free market economist was not a conservative

In 1994 Milton Friedman wrote a letter to Policy Review to complain that the magazine, then published by the Heritage Foundation, had inaccurately described his mentor and friend F.A. Hayek as a conservative. Noting that Hayek had included a postscript in his classic work of political philosophy, "The Constitution of Liberty," explaining "Why I Am Not a Conservative," Friedman said, "Hayek, to the best of my belief, like myself, always considered himself a 'Whig' -- a 19th century liberal, never a conservative."

Policy Review's editor, Adam Meyerson, was unfazed. Not only was Hayek a conservative, he told Friedman, but "you are a conservative, too. Sorry."

Friedman, who died on Nov. 16 at the age of 94, is no longer around to insist on his right to describe his own political convictions. And judging from much of the commentary prompted by his death, many people agree with Meyerson that the great free market economist, a staunch foe of conscription, should be drafted into the conservative movement against his will. But the truth is that Friedman did not fit comfortably on the right or the left, which says more about the inadequacy of contemporary political categories than it does about his own confusion or perversity.

Friedman sought to minimize government and maximize individual freedom. As he noted in his 1962 book "Capitalism and Freedom," "the right and proper label" for this orientation, for "the doctrines pertaining to the free man," is liberalism. But in the United States during the 20th century, that term "came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable."

Like Hayek and the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, Friedman resisted the solution of calling himself a conservative. "The 19th century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions," he wrote. "So too must be his modern heir."

You would not guess from the New York Times obituary for Friedman that he considered himself a liberal. The word "libertarian," adopted by some Americans as a replacement for "liberal," does make an appearance in the 16th paragraph. But the Times also says Friedman flew "the flag of economic conservatism"; describes the Chicago school of economics, of which he was the leading representative, as "conservative"; says Friedman "helped ignite the conservative rebellion after World War II" and calls him "the guiding light to American conservatives."

The general impression is that Friedman was a conservative with eccentric views about drug policy. But in what sense was Friedman conservative?

Was it conservative to advocate laissez faire in the wake of the New Deal and World War II, when the consensus on the left and the right was that managing the economy was one of the government's main tasks? Was it conservative to oppose Keynesianism when everyone was a Keynesian? For that matter, is there anything less conservative than the creative destruction of the free market?

Such questions are especially relevant at a time when a president who calls himself a "compassionate conservative" is widely accused by other self-described conservatives of abandoning their cause, when many conservatives are ambivalent or even happy about the Republicans' losses in this month's elections because they feel the party has forsaken its principles. I'm not sure what those principles are, and I doubt the neocons, paleocons, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and national greatness conservatives could agree on anything like a coherent philosophy.

What is the logical connection, for example, between opposing gun control and supporting drug control, between eliminating tariffs and banning online gambling, between deregulating campaign ads and censoring TV shows? A laundry list of policy positions is no substitute for a carefully considered worldview. Coherence is something conservatives could have learned from Friedman, who emphasized that freedom is indivisible.