Milton Friedman: Killing America softly with his song

Sam Smith

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.

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22 thoughts on “Milton Friedman: Killing America softly with his song

  1. Good essay, good thoughts Sam.I’d take it a step further and say that modern elites did not “swallow Friedman whole,” but rather, they encouraged Friedman to make up elaborate pseudo-scientific excuses and rationalizations for the fiscal and social inequalities that contributed to the increasing wealth and power of those elites.Economics always has been a form of religion. It is ludicrous that anyone or any institution gets away with calling it a “science.” It is not a science. It is a screed, it is a homily, it is a sermon. It makes bold excuses for systems that do not perform in a scientifically accurate manner. It muddies the water so that people cannot see clearly that such notions as “trickle down economics” do not result in a trickle down benefit to anyone, and in fact what “trickles down” is a burden of decreased power and wealth, and increased alienation and debt and destitution.You make an excellent side point regarding the pseudo-“liberal” NPR and PBS. Those entities use soft-pedaled <>sotto voce<> “nice people voices” to soothe people into a level of placation that prevents insight into what Americans are subjected to.Watching PBS on an evening, one can see shows that talk about history in a way that **assumes** Manifest Destiny and an American right to conquest. There is no criticism of the problems with health care, nor of the expenses associated with it. There was no uncovering of or reporting on the huge amounts of vote fraud and vote manipulation in 2000, 2004 or the more recent 2006 elections.By inserting the word “Public” in the names for the NPR and PBS entities, their controlling personnel have ensured that the vast majority of “liberals” who are eager to see “alternative” media will be duped into thinking that they are being fed independently investigated material untainted by commercial or political interests.Milton Friedman’s death came about 60 years too late.

  2. Good essay, good thoughts Sam.I’d take it a step further and say that modern elites did not “swallow Friedman whole,” but rather, they encouraged Friedman to make up elaborate pseudo-scientific excuses and rationalizations for the fiscal and social inequalities that contributed to the increasing wealth and power of those elites.Economics always has been a form of religion. It is ludicrous that anyone or any institution gets away with calling it a “science.” It is not a science. It is a screed, it is a homily, it is a sermon. It makes bold excuses for systems that do not perform in a scientifically accurate manner. It muddies the water so that people cannot see clearly that such notions as “trickle down economics” do not result in a trickle down benefit to anyone, and in fact what “trickles down” is a burden of decreased power and wealth, and increased alienation and debt and destitution.You make an excellent side point regarding the pseudo-“liberal” NPR and PBS. Those entities use soft-pedaled <>sotto voce<> “nice people voices” to soothe people into a level of placation that prevents insight into what Americans are subjected to.Watching PBS on an evening, one can see shows that talk about history in a way that **assumes** Manifest Destiny and an American right to conquest. There is no criticism of the problems with health care, nor of the expenses associated with it. There was no uncovering of or reporting on the huge amounts of vote fraud and vote manipulation in 2000, 2004 or the more recent 2006 elections.By inserting the word “Public” in the names for the NPR and PBS entities, their controlling personnel have ensured that the vast majority of “liberals” who are eager to see “alternative” media will be duped into thinking that they are being fed independently investigated material untainted by commercial or political interests.Milton Friedman’s death came about 60 years too late.

  3. It is worth pointing out that the US enjoyed the economic strength it did over the past 60+ years to a large degree because the other industrial nations were so thoroughly devastated by World War II. Ours was the only country producing stuff for the first decade after the war. After that inertia was on our side. Things have changed. The US has been a net importer of goods for the past couple of decades, but because of the afore-mentioned economic inertia, a lot of capital hung around in our markets. To a large extent, we’ve been living off the proceeds of other peoples’ money. That too is changing. The fact is, we are on the brink of a huge adjustment for which the American people have not psychologically been prepared.Assuming that the ‘Peak Oil’ theory proponents are close to accurate with their timeline, we are in for a doozy of a ride.

  4. It is worth pointing out that the US enjoyed the economic strength it did over the past 60+ years to a large degree because the other industrial nations were so thoroughly devastated by World War II. Ours was the only country producing stuff for the first decade after the war. After that inertia was on our side. Things have changed. The US has been a net importer of goods for the past couple of decades, but because of the afore-mentioned economic inertia, a lot of capital hung around in our markets. To a large extent, we’ve been living off the proceeds of other peoples’ money. That too is changing. The fact is, we are on the brink of a huge adjustment for which the American people have not psychologically been prepared.Assuming that the ‘Peak Oil’ theory proponents are close to accurate with their timeline, we are in for a doozy of a ride.

  5. Feels like Darth Vader just got struck down. Milton we sadly knew ye. Thanks for the most realistic, honest look at the damage Friedman’s ideology of greed has done to the U.S. and the planet. Still celebrating here, schauddenfreude be damned. Too bad we can’t bury old Milton’s toxic ideas with him.

  6. Feels like Darth Vader just got struck down. Milton we sadly knew ye. Thanks for the most realistic, honest look at the damage Friedman’s ideology of greed has done to the U.S. and the planet. Still celebrating here, schauddenfreude be damned. Too bad we can’t bury old Milton’s toxic ideas with him.

  7. This a concise, articulate assessment of the economic order that Friedman helped bring about. There really is no such thing as a “free” market, just as there is really no such thing as complete “freedom.” The best we can do is pick the nature of our chains. The nature of the chains Friedman and his fellow travelers would have us suffer – well – we now are living their vision. Morality and ethics has been driven out of the equation. They have us enslaved by the numbers and they tell us this is a good thing.

  8. This a concise, articulate assessment of the economic order that Friedman helped bring about. There really is no such thing as a “free” market, just as there is really no such thing as complete “freedom.” The best we can do is pick the nature of our chains. The nature of the chains Friedman and his fellow travelers would have us suffer – well – we now are living their vision. Morality and ethics has been driven out of the equation. They have us enslaved by the numbers and they tell us this is a good thing.

  9. “The underlying principle of laissez faire economics is that power is intrinsically good and decency intrinsically irrelevant.” In articles like this, the assumption is so often made that capitalists have their own best interest in mind while politicians act towards the greater good. Is anyone really prepared to make that statement about today’s politicians? And since the author brought up Reagan, let’s remember that the people, not just Milton Friedman, voted him in office and then reelected him in a landslide. I assume this means that author believes we need a Democrat in the White House – but then he would be ignoring the fact that inequality seems to have accelerated more during Bill Clinton’s presidency than at any other time in history (I am certainly not blaming Bill Clinton for this). All government (democrat, republican or otherwise) is about power and has very little to do with decency. So the question becomes, if we are going to dismiss Friedman’s view more individual responsibility and less government, whose do we follow?

  10. “The underlying principle of laissez faire economics is that power is intrinsically good and decency intrinsically irrelevant.” In articles like this, the assumption is so often made that capitalists have their own best interest in mind while politicians act towards the greater good. Is anyone really prepared to make that statement about today’s politicians? And since the author brought up Reagan, let’s remember that the people, not just Milton Friedman, voted him in office and then reelected him in a landslide. I assume this means that author believes we need a Democrat in the White House – but then he would be ignoring the fact that inequality seems to have accelerated more during Bill Clinton’s presidency than at any other time in history (I am certainly not blaming Bill Clinton for this). All government (democrat, republican or otherwise) is about power and has very little to do with decency. So the question becomes, if we are going to dismiss Friedman’s view more individual responsibility and less government, whose do we follow?

  11. You do know that most economists are more liberal (even on many economic issues) than the average American, don’t you?Where you guys are so hypocritical (and where Friedman was not) is that you believe your moral view of economic outcomes should be imposed on everyone (at the expense of liberty), yet when any right-winger says the same about social/religious issues such as gay marriage, you screem “free society” and that government should stay out.

  12. You do know that most economists are more liberal (even on many economic issues) than the average American, don’t you?Where you guys are so hypocritical (and where Friedman was not) is that you believe your moral view of economic outcomes should be imposed on everyone (at the expense of liberty), yet when any right-winger says the same about social/religious issues such as gay marriage, you screem “free society” and that government should stay out.

  13. The last comment “you believe your moral view of economic outcomes should be imposed on everyone (at the expense of liberty)”, you don’t get the fact that a laissez-faire economy does not bring liberty to all, only to those with the most money.Freedom depends on the freedom to choose. Libertarians do not really own the definition of liberty and freedom. Think about it for a while.

  14. The last comment “you believe your moral view of economic outcomes should be imposed on everyone (at the expense of liberty)”, you don’t get the fact that a laissez-faire economy does not bring liberty to all, only to those with the most money.Freedom depends on the freedom to choose. Libertarians do not really own the definition of liberty and freedom. Think about it for a while.

  15. It is sad but true that a free market, at least a free market as envisioned by Milton Friedman, does not exist. Friedman would certainly continue to cringe at the levels of taxation, regulation, subsidization, and overall government involvement in the markets.Interestingly, the litany of evils posted in this article listed as a result of “Friedman’s mythology”, have all occurred during a time when governmental oversight and spending have continued to rise. At least nine of the items, if not more, are due in large part to the continued <>lack<> of market freedoms. Freedoms which Friedman desired. There should be no wondering why Friedman would group any big governments together. All of his years and all of his studies showed him that a government that continued to spend and continued to block legitimate interests would harm the economy of that country. The results would be the very list for which Mr. Smith blames Friedman.Mr. Smith exhorts us to think about “the social and moral priniciples that made America great.” Well, what about them? Our country was founded upon the concept of the individual, free to conduct his business as he saw fit, provided he did not harm anyone else. His life was his own provided he recognized that of his fellow man.To claim that the underlying principle of laissez-faire economics is “that power is intrinsically good and decency is intrinsically irrelevant” is both patently wrong and illogical. Power, gained through theft or coercion, would still be punished, and there are numerous instances each day where decency is rewarded in the work place. The underlying basis of laissez-faire economics is that a person is entitled to that which he has earned and that those who produce should be “free” to trade their perceived value for another value with no interference from outside agencies.In the end, Mr. Smith is correct on one account. There are many systems of economics that can work. The real test of the proper economic system is which one allows the most people to prosper and grow. I’m pretty sure I know where the late Milton Friedman would side.

  16. It is sad but true that a free market, at least a free market as envisioned by Milton Friedman, does not exist. Friedman would certainly continue to cringe at the levels of taxation, regulation, subsidization, and overall government involvement in the markets.Interestingly, the litany of evils posted in this article listed as a result of “Friedman’s mythology”, have all occurred during a time when governmental oversight and spending have continued to rise. At least nine of the items, if not more, are due in large part to the continued <>lack<> of market freedoms. Freedoms which Friedman desired. There should be no wondering why Friedman would group any big governments together. All of his years and all of his studies showed him that a government that continued to spend and continued to block legitimate interests would harm the economy of that country. The results would be the very list for which Mr. Smith blames Friedman.Mr. Smith exhorts us to think about “the social and moral priniciples that made America great.” Well, what about them? Our country was founded upon the concept of the individual, free to conduct his business as he saw fit, provided he did not harm anyone else. His life was his own provided he recognized that of his fellow man.To claim that the underlying principle of laissez-faire economics is “that power is intrinsically good and decency is intrinsically irrelevant” is both patently wrong and illogical. Power, gained through theft or coercion, would still be punished, and there are numerous instances each day where decency is rewarded in the work place. The underlying basis of laissez-faire economics is that a person is entitled to that which he has earned and that those who produce should be “free” to trade their perceived value for another value with no interference from outside agencies.In the end, Mr. Smith is correct on one account. There are many systems of economics that can work. The real test of the proper economic system is which one allows the most people to prosper and grow. I’m pretty sure I know where the late Milton Friedman would side.

  17. You are a complete idiot and a malcontent. While this is an article from a while ago, I'd just like to remind you that you are completely wrong and you are a mean spirited jerk to boot. In the stead of actual philosophical breakdown or analysis you have pathetically snide drivel that one might hear a drunk utter into his glass after spending his last 10 dollars on a whiskey. You are nothing more than an immoral Statist, high on your own self-righteousness and ill-deserved crapulence

  18. You are a complete idiot and a malcontent. While this is an article from a while ago, I'd just like to remind you that you are completely wrong and you are a mean spirited jerk to boot. In the stead of actual philosophical breakdown or analysis you have pathetically snide drivel that one might hear a drunk utter into his glass after spending his last 10 dollars on a whiskey. You are nothing more than an immoral Statist, high on your own self-righteousness and ill-deserved crapulence

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