Come for the Hyack - Stay for the Firedman
August 8, 2014 1:36 PM Subscribe
Economist Robert Solow reviews Angus Burgin's history of laissez-faire thought The Great Persuasion [Amazon], and discusses the differing views and goals of the movement's two saints Hayek and Friedman.
here was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge in the economy (and in the rest of society). Since knowledge—about technological possibilities, about citizens’ preferences, about the interconnections of these, about still more—is inevitably and thoroughly decentralized, the centralization of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. The consequences for society can be calamitous, as the history of central planning confirms. [...]And Friedman
But the Good Hayek also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable. It has serious defects: successful actors reach for monopoly power, and some of them succeed in grasping it; better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant, creating an inefficiency in the process; the resulting distribution of income may be grossly unequal and widely perceived as intolerably unfair; industrial market economies have been vulnerable to excessively long episodes of unemployment and underutilized capacity, not accidentally but intrinsically; environmental damage is encouraged as a way of reducing private costs—the list is long. Half of Angus Burgin’s book is about the Good Hayek’s attempts to formulate and to propagate a modified version of laissez-faire that would work better and meet his standards for a liberal society. [...]
The Bad Hayek emerged when he aimed to convert a wider public. Then, as often happens, he tended to overreach, and to suggest more than he had legitimately argued. The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book. Leaving aside the irrelevant extremes, or even including them, it would be perverse to read the history, as of 1944 or as of now, as suggesting that the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” [...]
Under Milton Friedman’s influence, the free-market ideology shifted toward unmitigated laissez-faire. Whereas earlier advocates had worried about the stringent conditions that were needed for unregulated markets to work their magic, Friedman was the master of clever (sometimes too clever) arguments to the effect that those conditions were not really needed, or that they were actually met in real-world markets despite what looked a lot like evidence to the contrary. He was a natural-born debater: single-minded, earnestly persuasive, ingenious, and relentless. My late friend and colleague Paul Samuelson, who was often cast as Friedman’s opponent in such jousts, written and oral, once remarked that he often felt that he had won every argument and lost the debate.
As for relentlessness: Professor Friedman came to my department to give a talk to graduate students in economics. The custom was that, after the seminar, the speaker and a small group of students would have dinner together, and continue discussion. [...] Next morning I saw one of the students and asked how the rest of the dinner had gone. “Well,” he replied, “Professor Friedman kept arguing and arguing, and after a while I heard myself agreeing to things I knew weren’t true.” I suspect that was not the only such occasion.
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