You’d never guess it from the sycophantic obituaries, but Milton Friedman did more damage to American democracy and culture than just about any figure in the 20th century.
The sycophancy isn’t surprising. Friedman was blessed with it from the start. For example, the supposedly liberal PBS starred him in a ten part series, “Free to Choose” in 1980 just in time to help Reagan win the presidency. To this day, even NPR babbles about the “free market” when you all you have to do is count the number of lobbyists in Washington to understand that such an economy doesn’t exist.
Further, one of the best kept secrets of economics is that there are lots of systems that work provided, that is, you don’t care who they work for. Feudalism, for example, was great if you were a lord, not so efficient a marketplace is you were merely a serf. And each system works differently depending on the culture in which it operates, which is why communism in the Soviet Union, China and Italy meant such different things. In the end, the real test of an economy is not its math but its social, financial and moral effect on its culture and those who live there.
This is why the commentaries on Friedman were so consistently wrong. They treated economics as though it was a cold science when, in a mind as distorted as Friedman’s, it was really just a sort of creationism myth applied to money.
If you read far enough down the stories, you would find, grudgingly, a single quote from a critic. The Washington Post cited Galbraith biographer Richard Parker who said that Friendman’s “passionate calls for financial and securities market deregulation played no small role in ushering in the half-trillion dollar S&L fiasco of the 1980s and the deeply corrupt Wall Street stock market boom of the 1990s. His tax-reduction-at-all-costs policies helped lead to the nation’s yawning budget deficits.” And the Wall Street Journal admitted deep in its account, “Critics said he inspired policies that put millions of people out of work in pursuit of low inflation and demonized almost everything the government did, no matter how beneficial or democratically chosen. ‘Milton Friedman didn’t make a distinction between the big government of the People’s Republic of China and the big government of the United States, said James Galbraith, professor of government at the University of Texas.”
But for the most part both public figures and the media bought Friedman’s mythology, never stopping to look critically at the effect it had on America. Here are a just few things that have happened since America’s elite swallowed the Friedman myth:
– Real income down
– Real manufacturing wages down
– Top one percent’s share of wealth up
– Income gap between rich and poor up
– Family indebtedness up
– Bottom forty percent’s share of wealth down
– CEO pay as a percent of average workers’ pay up
– Workers covered by pensions down
– Workers covered by health plans down
– Age at which one can receive Social Security down
– Personal bankruptcies up
– Housing foreclosures up
– Median rent up
But the worst damage of Friedman economics is not fiscal but what it has done to the social and moral principles that made America what it was before the greedsters of neo-capitalism began taking it apart. The underlying principle of laissez faire economics is that power is intrinsically good and decency intrinsically irrelevant.
No society can long function on such a lie. It is essentially that of the Mafia with the exception being that you don’t have to always ignore the law to get what you want; often, with the help of your lobbyists and purchased politicians, you can just change it to fit your needs.
The moral vacuum was clear from the start. Ronald Reagan said things like “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” And: “Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”
As for Margaret Thatcher, whose platform of public selfishness was used as a model for the Reagan campaign, she thought there wasn’t even anything one could call a community: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Thatcher wrapped herself in economic slogans that justified greed not only to accomplish economic ends but also to deal with gays and abortions and everything else she didn’t like. In her paradigm, the free market and Victorian tyranny formed a civil union. By the time Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were through with the concept, they had created a gaping corporate exemption from common morality and decency. The market not only offered adequate justification for any act, it had replaced God as the highest source of law.
We have paid a terrible price for this corruption of our culture by the new robber barons egged on by Friedman and his ilk. We so accept their foul standards that we don’t even discuss or debate them. We have become prisoners of their lie.