Overdue obit…

That would be for one of the giants of 20th century intelligentsia, Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman who died in mid-November at age 94, whose lengthy Grey Lady obituary is here. His is the (5’3″ tall) “yan” to the (6’8″ tall) “yin” of his friend and frequent debating partner, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, whose death I commented on here.
Friedman acknowledged his own extremism, pointing out that someone in each generation must go “all the way”, and that was him. Some of his suggestions, the negative income tax (now incorporated in our tax code as the earned income credit) and the all-volunteer army, have become embedded in our system. Other aspirations of his, such as universal school vouchers, have not.
One of my formative experiences was watching (what I believe to be) one of the greatest events in the history of television, whether you agreed with Friedman in whole, in part, or not at all, the Free to Choose series run in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s on… taxpayer funded! public television. My favorite line from that series, which I sometimes still recite, is “Why should the taxpayers in Watts subsidize the children of Beverly Hills to attend UCLA?” I couldn’t agree more: which is why I would propose certain set-asides based on that and similar geography, be it on race or zip code, because it really is not fair otherwise to have a so-called “public” university that excludes vast swathes of the public from its doors.
Of course, the other possible angle, the one Friedman favored, would have been to get the state out of the business of funding universities. And because most states are being bankrupted by funding the back-ass-end of health insurance because this country (alone among industrialized nations) refuses to properly socialize health care, many have cut way, way back in their funding of public universities, dumping much of the cost on tuition and endowments, just like private universities. (Indeed, what led me to write this today was my snap-recollection that Friedman, though his graduate degrees are from my own private alma mater, sported his own undergraduate degree from state funded Rutgers.)
And this leads us to the problem with taking “libertarianism” to its extreme. The great social experiment of public education, or for that matter, most government programs, often have a critical social levelling effect: Friedman himself would, in the world that would result from policy he advocates is one that would probably have kept his parents and himself back in the sweatshops in which they started out, (or at best, still in the shmata business), instead of into academic and intellectual greatness.
Further, I really haven’t seen how Friedman’s libertarianism (which rightly would have ended our asinine drug-criminalization laws, for example, but which also might well end our drug safety laws as well!) really mesh into the modern Republican party (note an award presented to Friedman from Dubya himself in the Times obit), the party in which Friedman was regarded as a darling. In other words, isn’t a bloated, expensive and aggressive (rather than “defensive”) military, and its recent add-on, the domestic stazi “homeland security” apparatus that scraps habeas corpus and allows warrantless monitoring of citizens, etc., essentially the biggest slap in the face imaginable to true libertarians?
And there’s the thing: Friedman’s allies loved the “free up the business side” aspect… but just what do we do with the rest of it… the war with modernity waged by the GOP’s religious wing… or the GOP’s totalitarian wing… or the GOP’s the business-fascisti wing looking to hand themselves government contracts… ?
As I get older (if you’re not a liberal at 21, you have no heart; if you are a liberal at 40, you have no money), my view on Friedman has come full circle: on critical issues (environmental policy, the “security state”, public education), I come down on the side of what I believe to be Friedman himself (whether or not even he woulud have acknowledged them) rather than on the side of those most likely to embrace him politically (like Thatcher or Reagan… or the current Bush). In short, I err on the side of freedom of the individual from the government and especially from the powerful. That means preventing the despoiling of the air and water, preventing an aggressive foreign policy that will lead to a pretorian state and reduced freedoms domestically, and preventing to enforced social stratification by dismantling governmental social levelling mechanisms.
Friedman would have told us this was the goal of what he was advocating. The reality is that policies he advocated, that I often termed “sado-monetarism”, of perhaps “free to choose neo-Victorianism”, frequently had the opposite effect, and further stratified society or bolstered the powerful at the expense of the rest of us… and yet, he still seems to have advocated them! The late Barry Goldwater said that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
Friedman would probably have insisted that this is where he was coming from (even if, I have to say, being an enabler to the modern Republican Party is the exact mirror opposite of “defense of liberty.”) Well, what can you do? Friedman was second to none as an economic theorist, and, despite his diminutive stature, was… a giant.