David R. Henderson  

Friedman on Chicago vs. Columbia

PRINT
The Autobiography of Malcol... Utopian Exper...

I just received my review copy of Lanny Ebenstein's The Indispensable Milton Friedman. It's a compilation of less-well-known, but, nevertheless, often very interesting, essays by Friedman. Yesterday morning, I did a "drop-in interviewer" spot on a local libertarian/conservative talk show on Salinas-based KION-AM 1460. I interviewed Lanny about the book.

He and I noted two things:

First, as the opening essay, written in 1951, shows, Milton got more radical with age. He saw a bigger role for government then than he did in, say, 2000.

Second, and the point of this post, Milton had an interesting comparison between the University of Chicago and Columbia University. Here are the two quotes about Chicago. Lanny and I focused on the second, only because we didn't get to the first. They are from Milton's 1974 essay, "Schools at Chicago."

In 1964, during the Johnson-Goldwater presidential elections, my friend and colleague George Stigler remarked that Chicago was one of the few major universities, if not the only one, that without difficulty could staff a highly qualified Council of Economic Advisers for both Johnson and Goldwater.
Second quote:
In 1964--to the disgust and dismay of most of my academic friends--I served as an economic adviser to Barry Goldwater during his quest for the Presidency. That year also, I was a Visiting Professor at Columbia University. The two together gave me a rare entree into the New York intellectual community. I talked to and argued with groups from academia, from the media, from the financial community, from the foundation world, from you name it. I was appalled at what I found. There was an unbelievable degree of intellectual homogeneity, of acceptance of a standard set of views complete with cliche answers to every objection, of smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group. The closest similar experience I have ever had was at Cambridge, England, and even that was a distant second.

The homogeneity and provincialism of the New York intellectual community made them pushovers in discussions about Goldwater's views. They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own. As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: "You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Rings true, but there was probably greater diversity on margins that Friedman was less interested in.

That Friedman couldn't find many people excited about Goldwater is not - in my opinion - a sufficient benchmark for intellectual diversity and curiosity.

One worthwhile question might be whether the lack of enthusiasm about Goldwater among intellectuals said something important about Goldwater, too. I think insights probably run both directions in this case (in that it says as much about Goldwater as it does about New York).

Seth writes:

DK - That's cliche.

Ken B writes:

Wow. Is my reading of that passage ever different from Daniel Kuehn's. I took Friedman as saying "I found a startling homogeneity and so as a result of that lack of diversity when the topic came around to Goldwater ..."
DK seems to be saying Friedman based his conclusion about homogeneity on the discussions of Goldwater, citing the Goldwater discussions as his main evidence.

I think my reading supports Friedman's conclusion is a direct and obvious way, and DK's does not.

One of us is suffering a severe case of confirmation bias.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
Wow! You totally missed it. I was around then, although only 13. People of all political stripes were very excited about AuH2O, but mainly in a negative way. Friedman wasn't talking about their excitement or lack of, or even their disagreement or lack of. He was talking totally about the quality of their arguments.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ken B -
No that was just me saying it doesn't particularly matter to me if there is a diversity of opinion on Goldwater. I also got the impression that the sense of homogeneity was based on more than just that (he never indicated the question of Goldwater was the only reason he drew the conclusion - certainly Goldwater wasn't at issue in Cambridge, England!).

I still suspect there were margins on which NYC was very diverse at that time, they were just margins Friedman didn't care much about.

Seth -
I don't think so. If you mean it's something that's been said a lot - probably too much - then I'd agree. But if you mean that the way I am using it doesn't have substance, I disagree. I genuinely think this says something about Goldwater. The electorate apparently agreed, although they were certainly more varied on the question than the New York intellectual class.

Scott G writes:

Thanks for sharing David. Your statement about Milton growing more radical with age reminded me of this Uncommon Knowledge interview of his at age 87. He seems more radical here than in his earlier interviews and writings. I wonder how much influence his son David Friedman had on Milton's views becoming more radical. I have a feeling that only David can answer this question. I hope that David Friedman writes a memoir or autobiography someday about his time with his parents.

http://www.hoover.org/multimedia/uncommon-knowledge/26936

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David -
I'm failing to see what I've missed.

Presumably they felt the same way about the quality of pro-Goldwater arguments.

I'm not challenging all that much about what Friedman claims here, guys. I'm just saying how intellectually diverse or open minded a particular community is depends a whole lot on the vantage point from which you're looking at it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Seth, David, everyone I guess -
If Seth wants to talk about cliches, I can't think of much of a bigger one than "the other side is attacking a strawman and really doesn't understand my argument".

I sometimes indulge in that one, but of course when I say it it's not just a cliche ;)

My experience is that most people have more depth to their views on things than the other side gives it credit for. I certainly think this holds true when people say almost exactly the same things about Goldwater (or Paul, or Johnson) supporters. I can't imagine it doesn't hold true for New York intellectuals too.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
I see that you're failing to see it. I did the best I could. Possibly in the next few days I'll post about a nasty confrontation I had with the chairman of the University of Western Ontario when I was 21 and had casually said that I had been mildly pro-Goldwater. That might help get the tone across.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

[Comment removed for crude language.--Econlib Ed.]

Jeff writes:
Rings true, but there was probably greater diversity on margins that Friedman was less interested in.

Yeah, I'm sure there was plenty of healthy, stimulating debate between the Leninists and Trotskyists. God only knows why the rest of the world wouldn't be interested. ;)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David -
Hmmm... comment did not go through. Perhaps the language was too naughty.

In a nutshell, I have no doubt there was a university chairman that behaved exactly as you described, there are many people like that in the world. But we are talking about the intellectual class of a world-class city, I thought. Of course ignorant people exist in the world, and of course the ignorant people that cross us are going to be the ones that we remember.

Remember when you sympathized with me over email about one particular libertarian intellectual that was verbally abusing me? Surely that's not an instance that I should use to make inferences about the open-mindedness of other libertarians.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't know - I've had too many people tell me that Krugman is ignorant and ideological and shouldn't be trusted or Hayek was ignorant and ideological and shouldn't be trusted (or Bob Murphy or Brad DeLong or any number of other people) for me to take statements of this sort very seriously anymore.

Everyone has their own buttons, those buttons are not necessarily indicative of what is going on and those buttons are not necessarily shared by other people.

Ken B writes:

Daniel, I think you have missed my point, which was Friedman noted a general lack of intellectual diversity quite apart from any reactions to Goldwater. And that subsequently and consequently they were unprepared for a cogent exposition of an argument for Goldwater and what he actually said.

I had a similar experience I have mentioned here. Discussing with a bunch of grad students about markets I cited the effectiveness of needing insurance in affecting safety, and pointed out the underwriters laboratory symbol on the toaster. Not one person in the group, not one!, had ever heard such an argument before. "As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ken B -
re: "Daniel, I think you have missed my point, which was Friedman noted a general lack of intellectual diversity quite apart from any reactions to Goldwater."

Right. I agree. I'm not disagreeing with this. Those were two separate paragraphs in my initial comment which was intended to separate them as two separate ideas.

I probably shouldn't waste any more space here but I have two posts up now fleshing out my perspective on this on my blog. I am extremely skeptical of attempts to make diagnoses like this on the sort of scale that Friedman is doing it especially.

There have been all kinds of poll results showing that intellectuals--'second-hand dealers in ideas'--are less diverse in their voting than the population at large. They also voted in much larger numbers for Stevenson over Ike, for McGovern over Nixon, and Mondale over Reagan, than the electorate at large favored those landslide winning Republicans.

Also, what Friedman said about them being unable to answer cogent arguments against their beliefs is what we saw in the debate between Obama and Romney. I'm sure the President thought he was doing just fine during the actual debate. Heck, he couldn't even debate Joe the Plumber on a street corner.

Mike Rulle writes:

Hate to pile on DK.......but

David posted an observation by Milton Friedman. Based on his observation alone, and its obvious general nature (i.e., no book or essay with long examples), on a stand alone basis one must take it for what it is----Milton Friedman's observation, no more or less. Although his last sentence would seem definitive in its own right.

Yes, hypothetically, he could have been engaging in various sorts of intellectual self delusion, if we rely on that quote alone. Or we can point to Paul Krugman (or as Arnold used to say---Krulong) and say everyone disagrees on lots of things. Eventually, we can also devolve this whole thing down to "who really knows anything anyway".

But the opposite is also possible and he was spot on. Perhaps his observation was completely accurate. When Friedman makes that observation, at the very least, one must find it at least interesting----right? Or even plausible. Or, if you have read enough of him, probably correct.

Blackadder writes:

Well, Friedman's criticism wasn't that New York intellectuals rejected Goldwater's ideas (after all, most of the country also rejected them). It's that they had little to no familiarity with his ideas or the arguments in support of those ideas, because they had never been exposed to them. That's a big difference. I would venture to guess, for example, that most of the 1964 Columbia faculty were not Communists, but they were probably more familiar with the ideas and arguments for Communism than they were Goldwater's arguments and ideas.

It's true that a lot of people make this sort of charge and they aren't always right. It may be that it's the person making the accusation that isn't familiar with the other side's ideas, or they may be so biased that they can't properly evaluate matters. But when it's Milton Friedman making the claim about the New York intelligentsia re Goldwater in 1964, these objections aren't plausible. The idea that Friedman just wasn't familiar with liberal ideas is laughable. And Friedman's reputation in debate and success in persuading to move towards his point of view would be hard to believe if he didn't have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's arguments. By contrast, New York City has a well-deserved reputation for being isolated from conservative people and ideas.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Mike -
If its a statement about a lot of people in New York, it is plausible and probably correct. But I wouldn't think we'd need Friedman to tell us that.

If it gets much broader than that it starts to get increasingly implausible. Friedman, as you point out, is one that you can't read without starting to trust his judgement. But I'd personally be cautious against extending that from fields like monetary economics into fields like what's going on in New Yorkers' heads and how thoroughly they've considered ideas that Friedman has a personal attachment to.

Patrick -
Your last paragraph is an EXCELLENT example of how so many of these statements are really about personal perspective.

Ken B writes:
smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group.
I know the sort of thing he means. Like someone who snorts, grins, chuckles, smirks or laughs at every argument, who is always interrupting ...
Daublin writes:

This description sounds like *political* discourse, more than *New York* discourse:

"They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own."

Daily Kos, Real Climate, and The Daily Show churn out this sort of discussion all the time. Totally inward-facing discussion among people who believe a certain set of things and yet never much speak with anyone who doesn't. Whenever they are approached by someone who thinks differently, they have some hasty dismissal ready to shut them up with.

This part differs, though:

"As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers..."

I find the usual response is to not silence, but rather a loud interruption with the cliched argument that most closely has anything to do with the subject being discussed. Respond to that one, and they'll dig out a different cliche.

Kevin writes:

DK, Friedman had a tremendous breadth of experience with intellectuals and people generally from all over the world. If this were about people who disagreed with him pushing his buttons, NYC wouldn't stand alone, so much that there wasn't even a close second. I think Friedman's probably right, but even if he's not, it still says something about NYC because Friedman wouldn't say any other community even comes close. Maybe it says something about Friedman, but you'd have to at a minimum be familiar with NYC's intellectual community in the 60's to make any kind of informed guess about what that could be. It certainly doesn't say anything about Goldwater.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Kevin -
Why is everyone making this leap from Friedman being a guy we all agree is very insightful and worldly and observant to Friedman being a guy that has a special ability to comment on what's going on in a huge group of New Yorkers' heads - particularly on a question that Friedman is invested in personally (namely, the quality of the arguments in defense of libertarian-leaning conservatism in the 1960s).

Think of a liberal economist in the 1960s whose judgement you similarly respect. Do you think they'd agree with Friedman's assessment of intellectuals in New York? Probably not.

This sort of claim is largely informed by personal perspectives because it's not something you can pin down objectively. What people consider to be thoughtful arguments or unthoughtful arguments varies from person to person and it is almost by definition a function of your own views on the subject.

Now, if you want to say that there are people who straw-manned Goldwater that is without a doubt true and we don't need Friedman to tell us this.

If you want to say that there is a greater share of such people in New York City's intellectual circles in the 1960s that is also without a doubt true and we don't need Friedman to tell us this.

But Friedman went much farther than that in his assessment.

What's frustrating here is that I do think Friedman actually has a great message here, even if his assessment is most likely highly biased. I'm not trying to challenge Friedman's underlying message.

Hitchhiker writes:

As a huge Friedman fan, I found his comments especially relevant to the recent debate we witnessed on our telly screens. Obama was a pushover for precisely the same reasons. He has probably spent as much time pondering capitalism vs marxism as I have spent dining at fine French restaurants. He already knew everything he needed to know about the world before he ever started college.

Tom West writes:

While I might be to the left of most people here, I have to sadly admit that there's often far too much truth to the fact that the left isn't effectively engaging with their opponents actual arguments.

I've attended three of the big left vs. right debates in big settings, and in all three I was cringing listening to left's sides weak debating skills.

I've tried to figure out why, and I suspect the moral outrage at someone attacking our central tenet of direct harm reduction makes it difficult to intellectually engage one's opponent. (To do an argument justice, you have to believe your opponent is simply wrong, not evil...)

(Just to be clear, you can find tired cliched support for the right all over - just turn to Fox to find out how socialists are all in it for the love of power, etc., etc. It's just I find a lamentable shortage of boards on the left that can engage right-wing viewpoints with the same civility that this board deals with strongly non-Libertarian viewpoints.)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Tom West -
re: "just turn to Fox to find out how socialists are all in it for the love of power, etc., etc."

You don't need to turn to Fox News for that. There are plenty of blogs run by tenured professors that make that argument.

Which is not to say there's not something to the public choice argument they claim to be promoting. The problem is the asymmetry of its application.

kebko writes:

One thing that saddens me is the volume of propaganda that started floating around after Milton Friedman's death, making him into some neocon caricature bogeyman that has nothing to do with the man, and that among certain political groups is settling in as the accepted version of the man.
So this very phenomenon is now at work, specifically targetted at the topic, "who was Milton Friedman?"

jure writes:

Daniel Kuehn: Hayek made some very good arguments about intellectuals and reasons why they have atendency toward left. Thomas Sowell and his Intellectuals and Society or Vision of the anointed also express persuasive arguments why academia doesnt trust people to make their own decisions. All intelectuals in the world tend to be more pro- government no matter where. I come from Slovenia and our Intellecuals are 100% perfectly described by Friedman. No matter which area in human studies, they disagree only on how to regulate peoples lives. I think this comes from the nature of the profession itself.They often say in my country, that if you are a plummer you know this profession, if you are a salesman you have authority on that. But if you are a professional studying people and society- you have authority on that ! Free market intellectuals are a huge deviation among inteligentsia no matter where. You as an intellectual cannot advocate common sense and defend peoples choices- there is no sense for you being an intellectual! No one needs you then! Because you know that in market people of lower education walk the walk and drive mercedes you, in order to distinguish yourselve , must propose theories hugely different and distinguishable from the values people have. Putting it differently, higly competitive academic environment gives its members huge incentives to promote eccentric theories in order to attrack attention and funds.
It is natural tendency among people who know more about history and society than ordinary people that drives them to see themselves as the leaders. And with this kind of ''social'' activism they can show society that they are useful members of a society they otherwise despise. Traditionally people value success- money, hard work, traditional morality- none of each intellectuals have. One side of it is shown in their various social critique theories. But ironically, they also fall under social pressure and tend to follow socially desirable goals, but through the channel of total opposition to its norms , but with same greed for distinction,fame and again ironically for responsivenes to incentives (responsivenes to incentives is otherwise seen by them as highly barbaric, immoral and irrational). At my faculty in social studies, out of 200 professors and assistants, only 4 or three are non-leftists (and only 1 libertarian) and i can tell you- lives on even a lefty faculty are highly darwinian with not even a small resemblance to socialism. They cheat each other on intellectual property(yes property!, our leftists are crazy for intellectual or artistic property), and they hate and behave in rivalry like machiavelli had never died.

The comedian Dennis Miller is very interesting on the difference between left and right in politics. He's said that the way he is treated now by people on the left is completely different from the way conservatives treated him when he had conventional leftish beliefs.

There is also the famous case of the Hollywood writer Albert Maltz, who in 1946 wrote, in The New Masses a piece criticizing the use of political correctness to control artists.

The repercussions from which are legendary, and Maltz eventually wrote an abject apology in the magazine recanting his ideas. It wasn't just a case of the left not being familiar with counter arguments, but active hostility (possibly lethal) toward ANY challenges to their beliefs.

I was reminded of that by watching MSNBC the night of the Romney-Obama debate.

Seth writes:

DK, "That Friedman couldn't find many people excited about Goldwater" (from your first comment) is a straw man.

Friedman's concern wasn't that he couldn't find many people excited about Goldwater. His concern was these intellectuals were "pushovers in discussions about Goldwater's views."

Everything you wrote after that was a cliche response to your self created straw man and irrelevant to the point.

When I first read your comment, I thought it was a great satire.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top