Thursday, August 21, 2008

How many more times do we have to hear this narrative?

Repeating it over and over won't make it true, nor will it change that it is the product of intellectual laziness and a sign that the commentator is passing on opinions third-hand.

Consider anthropologist Marshall Sahlins's take on Milton Friedman and the "Chicago Boys", in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education:
Does the university expect us to "disappear" the memory of the Friedman-trained Chicago Boys, who supplied the economic programs for the draconian regimes of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the generals in Argentina? The sacrificial reduction of social values to monetary calculations is the essence of Friedman economics, and helps explain its historic taint as the complement of state terror.

Let's put aside the silliness embodied in the noun "Friedman econcomics" and consider the following:

  • Augusto Pinochet only became aware of "El Ladrillo", the Harberger- and Friedman-trained "Chicago Boys"' economic whitepaper, after the coup d'etat.
  • "El Ladrillo" does not call for the repressive policies used by Pinochet and his allies in consolidating their overthrow of the socialist Allende government.
  • Martinez de Hoz, Argintine Minister of Economy during most of the National Reorganization Process, was Cambridge-educated.
  • de Hoz's disastrous monetary policy centered on a very tight control of exchange rates. Friedman was an advocate of either "automatic" gold standards or freely floating currencies and quite opposed to manipulation of exchange rates.

The idea that repressive practices of some of the regimes--why doesn't Sahlins mention China, the UK, or the United States under Carter and Reagan?--which received Chicago School advice or put such recommendations into practice have foundation in the thought of Milton Friedman is prima facie ludicrious, and Sahlins doesn't even implicitly reference, let alone make a case for, such a link. A reading of Capitalism and Freedom, a very "thin" book well-suited for airplane rides or the café, would reveal to Sahlins that Friedman was quite the advocate of free political institutions and an open society, and that he advocated liberal economic policy in part because it makes the first more likely and reneders the second possible.

Perhaps among left-wing academics, Milton Friedman is a mythical catch-all bogeyman, a folk demon. Can we get an anthropologist on the case?

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