A Signal Dropout...
Jackie Calmes Exhbits a Tinge of Optimistic Naivete

Richard Posner Debates Milton Friedman

A thing that, as George Shultz likes to remark, everybody likes to do when he is not there to answer--and, alas, he will never answer again.

Judge Posner writes:

The Becker-Posner Blog: Milton Friedman--Posner's Comment: Perhaps his most important general contribution to economic policy was the simple, but when he first propounded it largely ignored or rejected, point that people have a better sense of their interests than third parties, including government officials, do. Friedman argued this point with reference to a host of issues, including the choice between a volunteer and a conscript army. With conscription, government officials determine the most productive use of an individual: should he be a soldier, or a worker in an essential industry, or a student, and if a soldier should he be an infantryman, a medic, etc.? In a volunteer army, in contrast, the determination is made by the individual--he chooses whether to be a soldier or not, and (within limits) if he decides to be a soldier what branch, specialty, etc., to work in. A volunteer army should provide a better matching of person to job than conscription, and in addition should create a more efficient balance between labor and capital inputs into military activity by pricing labor at its civilian opportunity costs.

But this is in general rather than in every case. The smaller the armed forces and the less risk of death or serious injury in military service, the more efficient a volunteer army is relative to a conscript one. These conditions are not satisfied in a general war in which a significant fraction of the young adult population is needed for the proper conduct of the war and the risk of death or serious injury is substantial--the situation in World War II. For then the government's heavy demand for military labor, coupled with the high cost of military service to soldiers at significant risk, would drive the market wage rate for such service through the roof. Very heavy taxes would be required to defray the expense of a volunteer army in these circumstances and those taxes would have misallocative effects that might well exceed the misallocative effects of conscription.

I mention this example because I find slightly off-putting what I sensed to be a dogmatic streak in Milton Friedman. I think his belief in the superior efficiency of free markets to government as a means of resource allocation, though fruitful and largely correct, was embraced by him as an article of faith and not merely as a hypothesis. I think he considered it almost a personal affront that the Scandinavian nations, particularly Sweden, could achieve and maintain very high levels of economic output despite very high rates of taxation, an enormous public sector, and extensive wealth redistribution resulting in much greater economic equality than in the United States. I don't think his analytic apparatus could explain such an anomaly.

I also think that Friedman, again more as a matter of faith than of science, exaggerated the correlation between economic and political freedom. A country can be highly productive though it has an authoritarian political system, as in China, or democratic and impoverished, as was true for the first half century or so of India's democracy and remains true to a considerable extent, since India remains extremely poor though it has a large and thriving middle class--an expanding island in the sea of misery. What is true is that commercial values are in tension with aristocratic and militaristic values that support authoritarian government, and also that as people become economically independent they are less subservient, and so less willing to submit to control by politicians; and also that they become more concerned with the protection of property rights, which authoritarian government threatens. But Friedman seemed to share Friedrich Hayek's extreme and inaccurate view that socialism of the sort that Britain embraced under the old Labour Party was incompatible with democracy, and I don't think that there is a good theoretical or empirical basis for that view. The Road to Serfdom flunks the test of accuracy of prediction!

I imagine that without the element of faith that I have been stressing, Friedman might have lacked the moral courage to propound his libertarian views in the chilly intellectual and political climate in which he first advanced them. So it should probably be reckoned on balance a good thing, though not to my personal taste. His advocacy of school vouchers, the volunteer army (in the era in which he advocated it--which we are still in), and the negative income tax demonstrates the fruitfulness of his master micreconomic insight that, in general, people know better than government how to manage their lives. But perhaps not always...

Let me channel Uncle Milton on one point: replacing a volunteer army with conscription does not get around the "very heavy taxes" with their enormous "misallocative effects" needed to man a wartime army. It simply loads those taxes onto a small group: young adult men (and these days women). It leaves the rest of us scot-free. But it is a redistribution away from the draftees--not an improvement in efficiency.

As to Posner's other points--Friedman's faith in markets, Sweden as a personal affront to Friedman, Friedman's excessive confidence that economic freedom would bring political freedom with it, and the falsification by reality of the main argument of The Road to Surfdom--I think they are very good ones.