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REVIEW: ‘Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative’ by Jennifer Burns

Milton Friedman receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Reagan White House photographs/Wikimedia Commons)
November 19, 2023

"Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore." The sentiments underlying Joe Biden’s mid-2020 statement would be affirmed today not only by center-left American opinion but also those significant segments of American conservatism that have fallen seriously out of love with free markets.

Friedman died on November 16, 2006. His influence at that point upon economics and economic policy remained considerable. Friedman’s ideas on topics ranging from school choice to monetary policy were a major reference point for the American right, but also parts of the left. Exemplifying the latter was former Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration Larry Summers. He went from regarding Friedman as a "devil figure" in his youth to seeing him as someone whose ideas on many subjects merited respect.

The awe in which Friedman was held started unraveling after the 2008 financial crisis, and there’s little question that some of his ideas lost traction over the subsequent decade. That is part of the background to a new biography of Friedman. In Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative, Jennifer Burns, a Stanford history professor and research fellow at the Hoover Institution where Friedman spent the last three decades of his career, has authored a comprehensive study of the economist’s life in the world of ideas.

I say "life in the world of ideas" because that is the biography’s primary focus. We learn much in Burns’s account about the private Friedman, his relationships with family and friends, and the various personal and professional challenges he faced throughout his long life. One of the most important things to emerge from this book is that Friedman was more insecure as a person than his public profile of boundless self-confidence suggested.

That said, the emphasis of Burns’s biography falls upon three interconnected things. The first is Friedman’s role in shaping how influential economists thought about the nature and ends of their discipline. A second focus is Friedman’s impact upon policymakers from 1960 onwards. The third emphasis concerns Friedman’s contribution to the formation of the modern American conservative movement.

Burns’s account is thus more of an intellectual and political biography of Friedman in the context of a battle of ideas fought over several decades rather than a deeply personal one. This is evident from the book’s structure. The first part surveys Friedman’s youth as the only son of two poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants who makes his way from high school through Rutgers University to the economics department of the University of Chicago.

Parts II to VI, by contrast, are defined by the major intellectual and political debates in which Friedman was immersed during his life. Certainly, figures like his wife Rose and her brother Aaron Director loom large at different points. But Friedman’s complicated relationships with political allies like George Shultz, intellectual influences such as Arthur Burns, and opponents like Paul Samuelson are read through the struggles which have marked economic theory and the conduct of American economic policy since the Great Depression.

What Burns establishes beyond doubt is Friedman’s pivotal role in upsetting interventionists’ otherwise iron-like grip on economic theory and policy throughout the postwar West. This claim is not new. Burns, however, puts substance behind it, not least by showing how Friedman operated simultaneously in the realms of ideas and politics as well as an area where economics professors are often ill-at-ease: the media. From this standpoint, Friedman turns out to be remarkably like the 20th century prophet of interventionism, John Maynard Keynes.

Part of Friedman’s trajectory along this path involved a conscious decision on his part to shape the character of modern American conservatism. Close attention to Friedman’s own economic and social thought indicates that his positions are more accurately described as those of a classical liberal. But Burns illustrates just how much Friedman wanted to ensure that market liberal ideas did not remain the intellectual plaything of academics writing papers that go unread outside very narrow circles. Instead, Friedman wanted to invest his ideas with political force.

This led to Friedman associating himself with figures like William F. Buckley and outlets like the nascent National Review as it pioneered what would eventually be known as fusionist conservatism. That in turn resulted in direct efforts on Friedman’s part to shape policy and policymakers on the right.

Burns posits that this really took off for Friedman after he made overtures to Senator Barry Goldwater following remarks made by Goldwater to the Wall Street Journal about exchange restrictions. Friedman considered Goldwater’s comments ill-informed and gently offered to help the 1964 Republican presidential candidate think more carefully about economic policy.

Initially, Goldwater blew Friedman off with a form-letter response. But from that moment on, Friedman became an increasingly important reference point for the American right as it inched its way toward making economic liberty a central plank of its political vision.

This did not mean that Friedman’s views always prevailed in the Republican party’s upper echelons. More often than not, they did not. Richard Nixon famously ignored Friedman’s advice on price controls and inflation, much to Friedman’s dismay and at great cost to the economy.

On occasion, it seemed that Friedman’s ideas were being taken more seriously abroad. One audience that proved receptive included the Pinochet regime following the Chilean military’s overthrow in 1973 of Salvador Allende’s disastrous government which had plunged Chile into economic and political chaos since 1970.

Friedman’s willingness to tender advice to a regime that committed serious human rights abuses, and even meet with Pinochet himself, has been raked over endlessly. Burns, however, dispenses with the clichés surrounding Friedman’s six-day visit to Santiago in 1975 during which he advised the military government to liberalize Chile’s highly dirigiste economy.

Friedman always believed that engaging the Pinochet regime had been the right decision. The price he paid was harassment by left-wing activists. This, Burns shows, impacted Friedman more than he let on.

Over time and after considerable reflection, Friedman came to see that, in Burns’s words, "exclusively emphasizing economic freedom could be read as accepting political repression." He subsequently modified his position on Chile to underline—including in personal correspondence with Pinochet requesting the release of regime prisoners—that "there was no acceptable trade-off," as Burns puts it, between economic and political liberty. This put Friedman somewhat at odds with his fellow Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek. The latter’s mild apologias for Chile’s military junta are described by Burns as "ill-considered."

This "indivisible" connection, as Friedman described it in a letter to Pinochet, between economic and political liberty was central to the creed of the post-1950s American conservative movement. It is also the best way to understand this book’s curious subtitle.

Burns states that she thought at length about the wisdom of applying "conservative" to Friedman. She decided that "liberal" is an inadequate label for Friedman because of the word’s lefty-interventionist overtones in America. Nor did she think "libertarian" appropriate, not least because Friedman didn’t like the term (nor, incidentally, did Hayek). Burns settles on "conservative" for two reasons.

One is that Friedman built much of his economics on concepts and techniques abandoned by most economists following the Keynesian revolution in economics. While his ideas may have seemed bold, Friedman "often got there," Burns writes, "by looking backward and forward at the same time."

That habit of mind characterizes much modern conservative thought. It also explains why much of Friedman’s work continued to fall squarely into the realm of political economy while increasing numbers of economists steadily lost themselves in a world of models and math.

The second reason for Burns’s use of "conservative" to describe Friedman is that this word was used to designate "the self-avowedly conservative political movement" with which Friedman associated himself. "Conservative" functions here as a way of describing not a philosophical orientation but rather a historically identifiable American political movement to which classical liberals like Friedman made major contributions.

Is it in this sense that Friedman is "the last conservative"? Burns is surely right to say that the movement that synthesized free market economics, anti-Communism, and defense of traditional values has cracked up over the past decade. In many conservative circles today, Friedman is caricatured as the arch "market fundamentalist" who epitomizes what went wrong with movement conservatism.

Ideas, however, have a way of recycling themselves. Some of Friedman’s specific contributions to economic thought and policy, Burns states, may have become dated. To varying degrees, that happens to the work of all intellectuals. Yet Burns envisages a time in which "Freed from the politics of his moments, Friedman becomes a resource for all those who are wrestling with the perennial questions of economic growth and state power, social welfare and individual liberty, the part and the whole."

Should that occur, Friedman’s ideas may have the potential to remind American conservatism of the extra-economic importance of markets and limited government. The real question is whether enough American conservatives in the future will possess a sufficiently Friedmanite-like imagination to reinvigorate the power of such connections.

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative
by Jennifer Burns
‎Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $35

Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research. His most recent book is The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World (2022).