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Think Again: Thoughts on Milton Friedman and Gore Vidal

SOURCE: AP/Doug Mills

President George W. Bush shows economist Milton Friedman to the podium after making remarks honoring him during a ceremony in Washington in 2002.

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Two leading intellectuals of the 20th century now share a birth and a death date. The conservative economist, Milton Friedman, who died in November 2006, would have been 100 years old on Tuesday. A different death in the news this week was that of the novelist, literary critic, and all-around troublemaker Gore Vidal, who has almost no political legacy, as he could not be bothered to take politics as seriously as he took literature. I got to know Friedman mostly through his work and from biographies of him, though I spent an enlightening week with him when we shared time on a cruise ship to Alaska in 1996. I knew Vidal considerably better, having jousted with him on numerous occasions over the years, which prompts me to consider their legacies on this week of their deaths.

A lengthy explanation of Milton Friedman’s life’s work and extraordinary influence can be found here. The conservative economist Thomas Sowell has written an appreciation of him here, as well. Though also a Nobel Laureate economist, Friedman’s greatest talents, as Sowell notes, were in being a popularizer of right-wing and radical libertarian ideas. “Most people would not be able to understand the complex economic analysis that won him a Nobel Prize, but people with no knowledge of economics had no trouble understanding his popular books like Free to Choose or the TV series of the same name.”

In this regard, Sowell explains, “in being able to express himself at both the highest level of his profession and also at a level that the average person could readily understand, Milton Friedman was like the economist whose theories and persona were most different from his own—John Maynard Keynes.”

An economist version of Ayn Rand, Friedman argued that, “Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” He believed in the power of ideas to move society. He hurled himself at the conventional wisdom of his day with popular tracts relentlessly attacking the notion of positive government interference in the economy, beginning with Capitalism and Freedom in 1962 and sustaining this consistent line through the bestselling election-year tracts Free to Choose (1980) and The Tyranny of the Status Quo (1984), both co-authored with his wife, Rose.

Friedman’s ideas were generally considered beyond the pale of reason when he began his attack on the Keynesian orthodoxy—he was the only economic advisor to Barry Goldwater in 1964. Through his Newsweek column, along with his bestselling books, television series, and think-tank appointments (particularly the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution), this bald, diminutive, ghetto-born Jewish professor managed to re-educate a nation on the principles of economic theory. In time, he established himself as perhaps the single most influential economic theorist since Karl Marx. As his intellectual adversary John Kenneth Galbraith puts it, “The age of John Maynard Keynes gave way to the age of Milton Friedman.”

I got a chance to spend some time with Friedman back in 1996 when The Nation sent me on a weeklong cruise to Alaska sponsored by National Review magazine. (I wrote about it back then, and I’m borrowing at bit from it for this column; some other parts of the text below are from my first book, Sound & Fury, The Making of the Punditocracy, originally published in 1992.) We did a lot of arguing together, often in front of an impromptu audience on the boat—with absolutely everyone rooting for the other guy.

It was a lot of fun. Similar to his wife and frequent co-author, Milton was barely five feet tall, if that. Being a respectful young man, I listened to him expound on the great equalizing forces of the “invisible hand.” In a discussion of Vietnam and globalization, he demanded, “Is anyone forcing those Vietnamese to work in Nike factories at the point of a gun?”

One of the craziest things I thought he said to me that week was when he insisted that he did not at all believe in public education. I said I thought this was a bit hypocritical, since he had received one, and it had allowed him to grow up to be the most influential public intellectual in the country, if not the world. I forget what his response was, but later during the cruise we got into a discussion about whether capitalism was “good for the Jews.” Friedman pointed to his wife, himself, and me, and explained, “Well, it’s been good for all three of us, and we’re all Jews.”

Ironically, while Friedman was undoubtedly a radical conservative, he was also a radical liberal—in the original or “classical” sense of the term. Similar to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the founders of our nation, Friedman had full confidence in the ability of men and women to shape their own destiny. He was an icon to leaders such as former President Ronald Reagan and former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because of quotes such as those in his introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, in which he wrote:

Progress could be achieved only in an order in which government activity is limited primarily to establishing the framework with which individuals are free to pursue their own objectives.

For these reasons, among many others, Friedman would almost certainly find himself in considerable conflict with the modern conservative movement, which seeks to regulate so much private behavior, up to and including the manner in which women control their own reproductive organs, who is allowed to marry whom, and pursuits of a xenophobic immigration policy. Many conservative leaders today even profess to take their orders directly from the Bible.

What’s funny about contemporary conservative admiration for Friedman is the fact that not only does the modern movement ignore much of the libertarianism that underlays his arguments, but it also ignores the fundamentals of economic philosophy. Under President George W. Bush, we saw the largest negative budget swing in American history: from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000, the year Bush was elected, to a deficit of $412 billion—or 3.6 percent of gross domestic product, the largest measure of growth in our economy—four years later, and that was just for starters.

During President George W. Bush’s eight years in office, when nondefense appropriations increased by 65 percent, the president’s strategy was to blame the other guy. For all his ideological obsessiveness, Friedman must have known better, but being a loyal ideological foot soldier in the conservative movement, he kept quiet. Given the influence he had over conservative economic thinking in the second half of the 20th century, those deficits are a big part of his legacy.

Another death in the news this week was that of Gore Vidal. I knew him quite a bit better than I did Friedman and saw him last when he had a friendly, albeit spirited, argument at a conference on the global role of media a few years back in Venice (sponsored by the Mikhail Gorbachev Foundation). While I naturally admired his literary felicity and spirited antiauthoritarianism, I had little patience for his politics, which were almost always conspiratorial-minded and got loopier as he got older, going so far as to find common ground with right-wing mass murderer Timothy McVeigh. (It was in his attraction to political perversity, as well as conspiratorialism, that Vidal resembled the late Alexander Cockburn.) Still, many students of politics may be unaware of the role Vidal played in determining the future contours of the punditocracy debate.

A generation ago, ABC was something of a semi-pro news organization. Its executives’ desperation to attract viewers overrode their desire to be taken seriously as a “credible” and “responsible” voice in the political dialogue. While planning their 1968 election coverage, these executives were searching for something that would truly distinguish their coverage from that of Walter Cronkite and company on CBS or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. Vidal had been accidentally suggested by conservative commentator William F. Buckley himself when the network had asked him to name a liberal with whom he could profitably spar during its convention coverage. Buckley replied that he would appear with any non-Communist, but he would prefer it not be that “philosophical degenerate,” Gore Vidal. “Bingo” said the men at ABC.

The network’s reporting of the 1968 Republican gathering—similar to the convention itself—came off without incident. The Miami gathering was marred only, in Buckley’s view, by Vidal’s insistence during their debates that he had based the “entire style” of the transsexual hero of his novel Myra Breckinridge on Buckley. Buckley replied that Vidal was “immoral” and held American culture in “disdain,” but there the colloquy ended. Buckley tried to convince the producers to allow the two commentators to make their presentations separately for the ensuing Democratic convention but he was a turned down: A star had been born.

Amidst the violent chaos that was the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, however, Buckley and Vidal began to argue over the relative provocational potential of the student protestors’ raising a Vietcong flag the night before. Buckley compared it to the raising of a hypothetical Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal then insisted, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi is yourself.” “Now listen, you queer,” retorted the conservative elder statesman. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Needless to say, the evening degenerated from there.

The incident drew itself out in a long and fruitless exchange in Esquire, where Vidal implied that Buckley was not only a homosexual but also an anti-Semite. Buckley considered a lawsuit, eventually concluding a complex legal agreement with Esquire instead. Buckley may have regretted his exchange with Vidal, but once again, he was merely embodying the zeitgeist before its time. Calling one’s opponent a queer and threatening, if only metaphorically, to plaster him so that he stayed plastered, would one day be considered the height of good manners in the punditocracy.

While we’re remembering birthdays and death days, let’s take a moment to remember that Jerry Garcia would have been just 70 on Wednesday. It’s ironic that the one thing that all three would have agreed upon was the libertarian freedom that allows a man or woman to indulge in dangerous narcotics. The fact of our losing Garcia so early in his life suggests, at the very least, that the vexing questions of our society such as how to deal with drug abuse and treatment cannot be solved on the basis of ideology, whether Friedmanite, Vidalesque, or Deadhead. Roll away the dew…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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