Saturday, November 12, 2005

Friedman, the "Laissez Faire economist"

Tibor R. Machan
In a business ethics reader I just received from McGraw Hill Publishers for possible course adoption, there are about 45 contributors. Among them is Dr. Milton Freidman, Nobel Laureate in economic science, who was for years with the University of Chicago economics department and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. ~

Here is what caught my attention: In the description of all of the contributors, nearly everyone other than the non-academic Frederick Engels, Karl Marx's co-author of The Communist Manifesto, is identified by reference to his or her discipline and home institution. Even Karl Marx himself is described as "a student of philosophy and economics," not as the founder of scientific socialism.

The editors, however, decided to put readers on notice right away about Milton Friedman's orientation in the field of political economy; they describe him as “US laissez-faire economist, emeritus professor the University of Chicago." His discipline, economics, isn't even mentioned.

I have no idea what came over these editors, one of whom I know slightly. But it reeks a bit of the perhaps latent desire to belittle Friedman, identifying him not by reference to his very impressive credentials but the rather didactic term used for his ideology.

And folks wonder why the charge of liberal bias is so often repeated about mainstream academicians. Here is one reason—even without perhaps intending to, those who favor a government with extensive scope and power (and for reasons they earnestly believe are sound) tend to marginalize their intellectual adversaries. In this book there is a relatively fair representation of free market supporters. Nevertheless the editors seem to think of them as but ideologues, people who are irrationally wedded to some viewpoint.

Those they tend to like, on the other hand, are treated as respected scholars in their discipline, so much so that even old hotheaded Marx is not identified with his socialist or communist ideology but with his having gotten a doctorate in philosophy as well as with his hardly respected work in economics. Students who read this identification are more likely to see Marx for the sincere, hardworking scholar or researcher the editors may think he was, while seeing Milton Friedman, one of the most technically renown and innovative neo-classical economists, as primarily a laissez-faire advocate—which is to say, someone who is ideologically predisposed.

Maybe I am making too much of this. Still, I suspect I am on to something, something perhaps even the editors may find surprising about themselves. When they went through the list of contributors and gave a biographical sentence or two about them, all but Friedman were thought of as mainly scholars or researchers. Friedman, however, didn’t receive that sort of respect from them. That’s probably because the do not have much respect for scholars and researchers who have the political-economic views of Friedman.

And that is too bad. In a proper university course when controversies are evidently rife, whatever the professor’s position, he or she is supposed to give a respectful presentation of all sides. This day and age, however, it seems that, with the focus being on cultural, racial, gender and other relatively innocuous diversity, the one pertinent diversity universities ought to keep in mind, namely, diversity of seriously argued and held viewpoints, often gets neglected.

Exactly how this squares with the idea of a proper liberal arts education I have my doubts. Seems to me the fervor behind championing favored viewpoints has taken over the commitment to proper teaching. I do realize that resisting such a temptation requires constant vigilance, as does non-partisanship in most situations where one isn’t supposed to take sides groundlessly—e.g., in judging athletes at the Olympics or considering the guilt or innocence of a defendant at a trial or, again, reaching conclusions with data from social scientific studies. But that is exactly what all these types of cases require, vigilant adherence to objectivity and, in the class room and textbooks, to the impartial presentation of the various live options being discussed about some topic.

Of course, some positions are beyond the pale—no self-respecting editor will give equal time to a Nazi, racist or even ascetic about, say, business ethics. But once one has decided to include someone’s position, one owes that person respect and not any kind of intimation that he or she isn’t quite cutting it in the respectability department.

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