Don’t Know Much about Friedman

It took a little more than a fortnight for someone to appropriate the legacy of Milton Friedman in support of something that the Nobel Laureate probably would have opposed. 

In an article for National Review Online, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his associate David Merritt call on the nation to “Renew Milton Friedman’s Conservatism.”  Whether chosen by the authors or the editors, that title betrays that someone missed Friedman’s point entirely.  In 1975, an interviewer asked Friedman whether it was fair to describe him as a “conservative economist.”  Here was Friedman’s response:

I never characterize myself as a conservative economist. As I understand the English language, conservative means conserving, keeping things as they are. I don’t want to keep things as they are. The true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today – the New Dealers – they are the true conservatives, because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on. I would like to dismantle that. I call myself a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means (inaudible) and pertaining to freedom.

Even more jarring is a policy proposal that the authors seem to associate with Friedman.  Gingrich and Merritt write:

We can transform health and health care to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower costs to every American. And government has a role to play. It can and should build an electronic infrastructure, much like government builds public school buildings.

I see two problems here.  First, Friedman often argued that it would be far preferable were government to stop providing education and instead just finance it.  That suggests he saw no need for government to build the schools.  Second, if Friedman ever took a stand on government provision of health information technologies such as electronic medical records, the lack of which is often regarded as a market failure, I’m not aware of it.  However, I have to suspect that left-leaning economist Brad DeLong more closely captured Friedman’s views on the subject when he wrote:

[Friedman] believed…that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures.

That view is hardly supportive of having the feds provide health information technologies.

Gingrich and Merritt do not completely misappropriate Friedman’s legacy.  They do argue for a few free-market health care and education proposals.