The Courage of Milton Friedman


The following two paragraphs are from a paper I am currently working on.


Milton Friedman wrote a Newsweek column many years ago that caused a firestorm of anger among his colleagues in the economics profession. Friedman’s argument was that, in general, the government is not going to do a good job of identifying the best and most productively innovative economists. In particular, he argued that economics funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) had made the economics profession more mathematical than was appropriate.

Even his ‘Chicago’ colleagues, who were otherwise inclined to be sympathetic to his work, were appalled: Robert Lucas wrote against Friedman in the New York Times, and Zvi Griliches spoke against him before Congress. 


Not too long after Friedman’s article came out, I praised it during one of the sessions of a Liberty Fund colloquium held in California.  After the session, a very distinguished economist came up to me, and started talking about the Friedman article in a very irritated and animated manner.  He said that what Friedman wrote in the article, might be true, but he shouldn’t have written it in a public forum.[i]  He said that within the NSF, the physicists have always been opposed to funding economics, and that Friedman’s article gave the physicists just the ammunition they needed.  I remember distinctly that after this conversation, the distinguished economist got into his very large and very expensive car and drove off.  To the cynical, it may also be worth mentioning that this economist had received very substantial funding from the NSF.

I also remember mentioning to George Stigler my disappointment that Lucas had written contra Friedman, and Stigler gave me his cynical smile, and said that I should have expected that Lucas, and the rest of the profession, would defend NSF funding.

[i] Most of the conversation I remember in broad terms, but specifically, I remember he said something very close to:  ‘Friedman shouldn’t air the profession’s dirty laundry in public.’


The reference for the Friedman article, is: 

Friedman, Milton.  "An Open Letter on Grants."  Newsweek, May 18 1981, 99.

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