In case you haven’t heard, today is Milton Friedman Day, an opportunity to celebrate the life of the greatest popularizer of free-market economics since the invisible hand of death claimed Adam Smith in 1790. Friedman himself passed away last year – the free market has yet to offer us immortality at any price – and today, individuals throughout the realm will remember Friedman’s defense of all that is good and capitalistic.
PBS will even air a special, “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman.” Apparently it’s pretty powerful stuff: According to an e-mail the University’s economics department sent to its students announcing Milton Friedman Day, the PBS special “really makes your eyes well up with tears.”
That’s a lot of emotion to show over a dead economist. But Friedman was, after all, one of the 20th century’s more intriguing intellectual figures. More libertarian than conservative, Friedman followed his ideas all the way to their logical conclusions. He wanted more liberal capital markets – and less restrictions on drugs and prostitution. He argued that deregulation benefits consumers by increasing competition, and thus he suggested lowering medical costs by eliminating the Food and Drug Administration and getting rid of licensing requirements for doctors.
I have a difficult time thinking dispassionately about Friedman and his ideas: I don’t like policies that make life harder for poor people, and having read “The Jungle,” I like having the FDA around to protect me.
It’s entirely possible, however, to acknowledge Friedman’s triumphs while criticizing his flimsier ideas. Writing in this month’s issue of The New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman calls Friedman “a great man and a great economist.” Krugman nonetheless points out the shortcomings of Friedman’s views on monetary policy and the “intellectual dishonesty” – that’s intelligentsia-speak for plain old lies – found in some of his statements to the general public. Differentiating between Friedman’s various roles, Krugman writes that “Milton Friedman the great economist could and did acknowledge ambiguity. But Milton Friedman the great champion of free markets was expected to preach the true faith, not give voice to doubts.”
With Milton Friedman Day, Friedman’s free-market proselytizing continues beyond his mere demise. Yes, assorted governmental and academic bodies have declared today to be Milton Friedman Day. But the entity actually pushing the idea – the organization that really declared today to be Milton Friedman Day – is something called Free to Choose Media.
This nonprofit group describes itself as “A Media Company for the 21st Century . exploring the concepts of freedom and wealth creation through expert storytelling and high quality presentation.” In other words, this is a propaganda outfit for the 21st century.
Free to Choose Media is headed by Bob Chitester, who produced documentaries with and about Friedman during his lifetime. Chitester is also behind tonight’s PBS special, which apparently is about as fair and balanced as you might expect. A review in the Providence Journal notes the documentary’s omissions and distortions, stating that the PBS program “is more a sales job for a conservative, anti-government ideology than an honest look at the Nobel economist.” Chitester wrote on one of his websites that he promised PBS an “intellectual biography,” but the English language contains a more precise word to categorize such projects – hagiography.
Of course, no conservative TV producer is an island, so we might heed the advice Deep Throat gave to Bob Woodward: Follow the money. It turns out that Free to Choose Media is a project of the Palmer R. Chitester Fund, which Bob Chitester named after his father. That fund, in turn, gets much of its money in the form of grants from assorted right-wing “philanthropic” organizations, including prominent names like the Olin Foundation and the Bradley Foundation. (Both of those foundations, incidentally, have given to the Collegiate Network – which funds dozens of right-wing student publications, including The Michigan Review).
There are reasons why conservative organizations and the wealthy individuals who fund them are so eager to canonize Friedman, and I can’t imagine all of them are as noble as a sincere and disinterested belief in the moral superiority of limited government. Stripped to their most simplified form – market always good, government always bad – Friedman’s anti-government views conveniently serve the interests of those who benefited the most from the Bush administration’s tax cuts.
The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, even Michigan’s own Mackinac Center for Public Policy – there’s a lot of conservative money hard at work behind these groups trying to move this country even further to the right. Add Free to Choose Media, and Milton Friedman Day, to the list.
Christopher Zbrozek is a Daily editorial page editor.