Streetwise Professor

October 25, 2008

Snakes in Milton’s Paradise

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 10:25 am

Milton being Milton Friedman, and the University of Chicago was his intellectual paradise. In recent months, Friedman’s legacy has become the focus of a pitched political battle between the opponents and proponents of the establishment of a Milton Friedman Institute at the university.

The opponents argue that the MFI would inevitably support politically charged scholarship and promote a free market agenda at the expense of intellectual rigor and honesty, and that this is inconsistent with the mission of a leading university. They also express concern that the prestige of the institute will lead outsiders not intimately familiar with U of C to conclude that the university is a cabal of right wing ideologues. (As if. In my dreams.)

Coming from the academic left, charges of politically influenced scholarship are richer than Peking duck. I mean really people, look in the ‘effin mirror. Anyone who denies that political agendas–and mainly leftist ones–don’t pervade the humanities and social sciences is a liar. The only question is whether they lie to themselves, or only favor the great unwashed with their falsehoods.

In reality, every scholar in the social sciences brings a worldview, a mindset, a set of preconceptions to his or her research. They all have a frame of reference, a paradigm, that informs their research, guides their choice of problems, influences their choice of methods, and affects their interpretation of results and data. Every single one.

Can this result in bad scholarship? Indubitably. But not necessarily. Friedman himself is an exemplar of that. No honest person capable of evaluating Friedman’s work, even one who largely disagrees with him, can deny that he made immense contributions to economics. Even his more politically relevant writing was iconoclastic, and did not hew to any conventional political line. Most notably, his early and outspoken criticism of conscription and advocacy of an all volunteer military, and his consistent call for an abolition of drug laws hardly conformed to any conventional right-wing agenda.

There are other examples of “Chicago boys” letting their scholarly logic lead them to conclusions that don’t fit conventional political categories, or stereotypes of what the Chicago School stands for. Luigi Zingales of the supposedly ideological Graduate School of Business at UC recently advocated a mandated restructuring of bank capital structures (squeezing out equity holders and converting debt to equity), and cited the government’s abrogation of the gold clauses in private contracts during the depression as a precedent. Not to put myself in the same league as Zingales, let alone Friedman, but although I am a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago School guy of the old school variety that is largely a memory even at the modern Chicago, I publicly proposed the Humpty Dumpty option which, to put it mildly, is hardly what one would expect a Chicagoan to advocate.

But more importantly, there is a process–imperfect to be sure–to identify and criticize bad scholarship. Just as the American legal system relies on an adversarial process in which interested–biased–parties present their cases to fact finders who must sort through the contending claims in an attempt to determine the truth, through the publishing process and public debate and argument academics present their cases to their peers and the world at large. The process is combative and adversarial, and through this process there is a high likelihood (not a certainty, alas), that bad scholarship will be revealed as such.

Indeed, a bigger problem in academia is groupthink. (Richard Pipes’s discussion of this subject in his autobiography Vixi is quite illuminating.) The process of public debate and the dynamics of academic promotion and the job market too often induce conformity rather than independence and iconoclasm. There is no danger that a Milton Friedman Institute would dominate academic discourse in economics and public policy, and dictate adherence to a free-market party line to the profession. Indeed, even if–especially if–its opponents fears are realized it would be an exception to the prevailing academic currents in the social sciences generally, but even in economics particularly. Three Finger Brown could count the number of like-minded institutions on his pitching hand. That is not a good thing. Indeed, whereas at one time there were distinctive academic environments at different universities–Chicago economics was very different from its Cambridge counterpart, as an example–there is a stultifying homogeneity in academic economics today. An unabashed, distinctive free market-oriented institute would shake things up, stimulate debate, and in fact improve the rigor of the research and argumentation of those taking the opposing views. Competition has a way of doing that.

Ironically, this is especially important at the very time when events have led many to conclude that Friedman’s ideas about free markets were fundamentally wrong. Friedman was an outspoken critic of an overwhelming post-New Deal, post-Keynesian intellectual consensus, and thank God for that. His tireless work–and yes, at times polemicism–identified many chinks in the intellectual armor of the adherents of this consensus. Groupthink was alive and well then, and Friedman was essential in challenging it. As I have said before, the great lesson of the Great Depression is that all too many learned the wrong lessons from the Great Depression. More than any individual, Friedman laid bare these errors.

In the midst (I was going to say aftermath, but that would be wishful thinking) of the financial crisis, this consensus is on the verge of coalescing again. Although some of its criticisms of the operation of the market in recent years arguably have merit, many are likely fallacious. Given the magnitude of the stakes, it is imperative that there exists a place that supports research that challenges the consensus, and that protects scholars from professional pressures–and political pressures–that stifle debate and promote conformity. The MFI could–and should–serve as such a place. The adversarial process advances scholarship, knowledge, and understanding. To have an adversarial process, one needs adversaries. Thus, I hope that folks like John Cochrane and Lars Hansen and Bob Lucas stand firm and don’t let the university be buffaloed into neutering a Friedman institute, and distancing it from the Friedman legacy. (And I hope that Jim Heckman figures that out too, because he’s been showing troubling signs of waffling.)

One last thing. There should be no illusions that all of the opponents of the institute are high minded defenders of academic integrity. This is about power. Period. The academic left brooks no opposition on its march through the institutions. These people don’t like markets–the market for ideas especially. They more than believe the postmodernist claim that all discourse is a mask for power relations: They live it. There is an ideological component to this battle, sure enough, but the real ideologues are not the MFI’s defenders, but its critics. Just note that MFI’s most visible critic outside the university thinks Bill Ayres is just a swell guy. I would bet large money that this is not a minority view among the MFI’s attackers.

For those whose eyes may glaze over at what at first blush appears to be an intramural contest between eggheads at the University of Chicago, you should realize one thing: There is a larger national political lesson here. Hyde Park is the intellectual sea in which Barack Obama has swum for the past twenty-odd years, and the other fish include hard lefties that oppose the MFI. You can draw your own conclusions from that. Mine is: Post-partisan my foot. (I cleaned that up, BTW.)

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  1. Please note my blog on Obama as the incarnation of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the welfare state.

    Comment by Fred Hansen — October 29, 2008 @ 6:59 am

  2. Fred–

    I’d like to look at it, and maybe link to it, but I can’t find it. Can you shoot me a link?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 29, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  3. […] he personifies the capitalist or “neo-liberal” ideology that wreaked economic havoc.  The controversy over the Milton Friedman Institute at Chicago, right at the height of the crisis, is one example.  Or Naomi Klein’s screed Disaster […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Happy Centenary, Milton — July 31, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

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