Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative, by Jennifer Burns (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $27.73)

Jennifer Burns’s biography, Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative, will be the standard reference for anyone wanting to dive deeply into the life of the great economist and the world in which he flourished. The historical context that Burns provides makes the book almost as much a work of post-1929 economic and intellectual history as a biography of the bespectacled, diminutive professor who so influenced it. Though Burns is not uncritical of her subject, the story she tells will leave most right-leaning readers longing for the days when Friedman was one of their champions.

Before going back to Friedman’s youth in Rahway, New Jersey, and his time at Rutgers University, Burns introduces him at his apex, as economist extraordinaire and public intellectual. She notes that Friedman did more than lead the charge against Keynesianism; he “offered a philosophy of freedom that made a tremendous political impact in a liberty-loving country.” One of Burns’s goals is to “restore the fullness of Friedman’s thought to his public image” and to “approach Friedman as a scholar . . . setting his ideas in context and making his achievements legible for a new generation, either friend or foe.”

She touches all the key points of Friedman’s life, including his time at the University of Chicago as student and professor; the key influences on his thinking; his period away from academia in Washington and New York; his scholarship and leadership of the Chicago School of Economics, especially its “monetarism” and challenge to Keynesian orthodoxy; his work on the consumption function and the permanent income hypothesis, monetary history, the Phillips Curve, and the negative income tax; the controversy over his work in Chile and his relationship with Augusto Pinochet’s regime; his scuffles with mentor Arthur Burns; and the influence of his ideas on the late twentieth century and beyond. Reflecting on Friedman’s long shadow, Burns concludes that by century’s end, “the basics of monetarism had been adopted into conventional wisdom” and that “many of the things he had pressed for throughout his professional life had come to pass.”

A notable (and original) part of Burns’s treatment is a chapter claiming that Friedman harnessed “the intellectual firepower of four overlooked women”—Anna Jacobson Schwartz, Dorothy Brady, Margaret Reid, and his wife, Rose Friedman. Burns argues that Friedman benefited from his openness to women’s ideas and from working with them on important research projects at a time when many others did not. Burns also suggests, however, that Friedman sometimes failed to give them the credit they may have deserved, especially in his work on consumption with Brady and Reid.

Burns broadens the subject beyond Friedman to the history of twentieth-century economic thought. She provides useful background about the intellectual atmosphere and ideas circulating at the University of Chicago, bringing to the fore Henry Simons, Frank Knight, Aaron Director, and others who created the environment in which Friedman himself developed. She similarly animates Paul Volcker’s tenure at the Federal Reserve Bank and his attitude toward Friedman’s monetarism, and she enlivens Friedman’s research on the consumption function and the permanent income hypothesis. Burns uses archival materials effectively and offers a notably measured examination of the Chilean episode.

The book sometimes feels overstuffed, including obscure details about, for example, Friedman’s discussion of Director’s engagement at the law school. At other points, Burns downplays subjects that deserve more attention, such as Friedman’s overarching political philosophy, key issues like educational choice and shareholder capitalism, the extent to which Friedman became more radical on some key issues as he grew older, and the Free to Choose television project. Friedman fans might also quibble that an unintentional consequence of all of Burns’s context and intellectual history is that the man himself and his contributions seem a bit diminished.

Finally, the book’s subtitle might unnecessarily distract readers. Burns’s case for Friedman as “the last conservative” is not intricately woven into the book, though it is comprehensible as she lays it out. As I’ve argued elsewhere, a truly American conservative wants to retain the classical liberalism of our past that emphasized individual freedom. Given Friedman’s commitment to freedom and his economic work providing a foundation for a less interventionist state, one could say that he was aiming to conserve the liberalism at the heart of the American experiment. Let’s hope that Burns is wrong, though, that Friedman will be the last to do so.

Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images


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