Alert the Times: Milton Friedman Was a Liberal


I suppose it was inevitable that the New York Times obituary for Milton Friedman would describe his views as "conservative," but it's still a bit depressing. To be fair, the headline accurately calls Friedman a "free-market theorist," and the word libertarian even makes an appearance (in the 16th paragraph and the subhead preceding it). But the Times also says Friedman flew "the flag of economic conservatism," describes the the Chicago School of economics as "conservative," says Friedman "helped ignite the conservative rebellion after World War II," and calls him a "guiding light to American conservatives." The general impression is that Friedman was a conservative with eccentric views about drug policy.

So 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 Keynsianism when everyone was a Keynesian? For that matter, is there anything less conservative than the creative destruction of the free market?

You could say Friedman was conservative in that he tried to preserve the individualist, anti-statist values on which this country was founded. But this was more a task of recovery than conservation. In any case, the values for which he fought were not inherently conservative, which becomes clear when you consider his influence in formerly communist countries (which the Times obituary mentions). Is it too much to ask that the Times describe Friedman as Friedman described himself? Obviously, that would require an explanation of the distinction between contemporary leftish "liberals" and the classical variety, but such an explanation would be neither a pointless semantic exercise nor an obscure history lesson. It would illuminate what Friedman stood for.