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Jennifer Burns, in chronicling the life of Milton Friedman, charts a struggle of national ideals

The father of neoliberalism courted fame and influence, turned a dispassionate eye to political matters

Historian Jennifer Burns, author of “Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative.”Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In a controversial 2009 essay for The New York Times Magazine, liberal economist Paul Krugman drew a stark line between “freshwater” and “saltwater” academic institutions: the latter had clustered in coastal universities such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of California at Berkeley, while the former had carved out a fiefdom at the University of Chicago, a stone’s toss from Lake Michigan. The saltwater school of economists advocated for governmental spending in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes, revived by the global financial crisis after decades of disfavor; by contrast the Chicago school derided Keynesians as idiots and propagandists, or, worse, traitors.


Milton Friedman (1912-2006) remains the freshwater colossus. In her painstaking, engaging, occasionally bland biography, Stanford historian Jennifer Burns evokes not only the people and events that undergird the Nobel laureate’s life, she also chronicles a struggle of ideals, with Friedman as the throughline. Born to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, he was a thinker, cast in the European mold, competitive to the bone. His brilliance for math emerged early: He won a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was mentored by Arthur Burns, a rising economist and future Fed chairman (no relation to the author).

Diminutive yet broad-shouldered, Friedman carried himself like a bantam in a barnyard, picking fights with colleagues and often professors. Shaped by “neoclassical” economics and attracted to price theory, he matriculated at Chicago for his MA degree and earned his PhD from Columbia. Along the way he did a stint in Washington, D.C., just as F.D.R. was rebooting the New Deal in 1937, and married a classmate, Rose Director. Theirs was a personal and professional partnership, although she mostly relinquished her own ambitions to raise their daughter and son.

Burns dismisses the notion that Friedman ever championed the New Deal; he cut his teeth on its principles but then rejected them, seduced by the levers of influence. “The same forces that swept away family farms, vaporized life savings, and destroyed businesses large and small created a boom market for anyone with university training in economics,” Burns writes. “As the New Deal wore on, economists became strategists and advisers to government at the highest rank … the surging demand washed away the last vestiges of gentlemanly political economy, leaving economics an ascendant discipline and favored handmaiden to power.” He’d use the ivory tower as a base camp for a singular career. After landing a job back at Chicago, he waged war on F.D.R.’s legacy, armed with monetary policy. Welfare incentivized poverty; government must step aside to allow capitalism to soar. His politics moved accordingly: To the victor went the spoils.


Burns’s command of Friedman-as-public-figure is impressive, distilling his books and columns into a cogent tutorial on the sweep of conservative ideology as it hardened during the post-Eisenhower years. She’s less interested in exposing the man beneath the horn-rimmed glasses and bald pate, devoting only a paragraph to his wife’s rape while he was overseas. A postwar Machiavellian, Friedman loved the limelight and espoused authoritarian concepts which captivated policy makers from Europe to India to South America. He cozied up to the vicious Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet; as Burns observes, Friedman “appeared to separate Pinochet almost entirely from the crimes of the regime, noting that torture was ‘more or less standard procedure of intelligence agencies in Chile and other South American countries. …That doesn’t excuse it or justify it, but it does help to explain its persistence.’ While Friedman’s notes on economic conditions bristled with his usual irreverence, when turning to political matters they became dispassionate, even anthropological in tone.”


The second half of “Milton Friedman” delves into the political philosopher who increasingly divided the world into capitalist elites and the peasantry who would benefit from their largesse. Burns tackles the issue of Friedman’s opposition to the watershed civil rights legislation of the 1960s, acknowledging his racism. Her account lacks the rich textures and moral fervor of Binyamin Appelbaum’s “The Economists’ Hour,” but its narrative coheres better: Here he’s a major player in the Nixon administration, even coaxing Tricky Dick into retiring the draft, in his estimation one of his greatest accomplishments.

In 1976 Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize, commemorating his research in consumption and monetary theory. Already he was shifting toward radical activism, colluding with Republicans and collaborating with his spouse on right-wing superstardom. A spike in “stagflation” discredited Keynes and ushered in the reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom Friedman consulted. “Reagan’s focus on economics got a boost from Free to Choose, Rose and Milton’s blockbuster television show,” Burns writes. “It was Rose who grasped the power of the medium to spread her husband’s ideas, and Rose who convinced him to do it.” Unfettered markets — unfettered media reach — from sea to shining sea!

Friedman kept his hand on the scales of justice to the end. As the historian Gary Gerstle has argued, he was the architect of the neoliberal order, Reagan and Bill Clinton its carpenters. That order has now ebbed away: Ours is an epoch of rampant inequity, of profound and poorly understood change, much of it inherited from Friedman’s zeal and bombast, his commitment to hierarchies. He may belong to the past, but his invisible hand still steers us as we careen headlong into a murky, discomfiting future. Burns’s biography is a testament to his longevity and a solid addition to our intellectual canon.


MILTON FRIEDMAN: The Last Conservative

By Jennifer Burns

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pp., $35

Hamilton Cain is a book critic and the author of a memoir, “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.”