John Cochrane has a new post up in which he discusses the historical importance of Milton Friedman's book Free to Choose (a book I have never read. The first half of the post is a discussion of the difference between negative and positive rights, with which I largely (but not completely) agree. But the second half consists of a reading of events since 1980 with which I take a number of exceptions:
Here are a few "freedom, democracy and prosperity" events...since 1980:
- The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, including deregulation, tax reform, victory over inflation and inauguration of a 20-year economic boom.
- A billion Chinese released from abject poverty. (Hint to China: read Capitalism and Freedom next.)
- A billion Indians, also starting to join the modern world, having begun to overturn their Keynesian / English-socialist model.
- We won the cold war. East and West Germany reunited. Eastern Europe freed.
- The number of democracies, for example as scored by Polity, doubled since 1980. Many in Latin America and Africa too.1980...was an end to US and UK inflation -- the result of mindless "stimulus" -- and the end of widespread acceptance of simpleminded Keynesian economics. It was the end of a brief interlude of unquestioning belief in the power of the Federal Government to solve all problems. It was the end of stagnation in the US and UK.
1980 was an inflection point for the advance of freedom, not its end! Yes, some of the Friedmans' dark worries did not pan out. Why not? Because people read the book! The Friedmans were fighting against the "tide of history." And turned it back....
We have a long way to go, and we've been heading backwards in the last few years, on all indices of economic and political freedom. Our 30 years of liberalizations may indeed now be coming to an end. The economic and political ills of the 1970s seem to be returning.
This appears to me to be a very standard intellectual Republican narrative of recent history; if you surveyed registered Republicans with postgraduate degrees, and then took an average of their responses, it seems like you might get something like this. Now, standard narratives are not necessarily wrong. But this narrative happens to be one about which my feelings are quite mixed.
I agree with a number of Cochrane's points. I agree about China. I basically agree about India (though where did Keynes support a "license raj"??). I agree about the Cold War and the spread of democracy. I agree about inflation. None of these positive developments should be forgotten or ignored.
But there are some points with which I strongly disagree. Let me address these:
1. " was the end of stagnation in the US and UK." What? Really?? What about the Bush years? You know, the 8 years when the inflation-adjusted stock market did worse than in the 1970s, income stagnated, and GDP growth underperformed past booms, all despite massive tax cuts and substantial deregulation?
2. "The economic and political ills of the 1970s seem to be returning." Really? Inflation?? No. I know there are some people who believe that a fiscally induced hyperinflation is just around the corner, but that is pure speculation...
3. "US and UK inflation -- the result of mindless "stimulus"" Really?? But budget deficits were low in the 1970s, and only exploded in the Reagan years (and again in the Bush years). And most economists believe that the 70s inflation was caused by loose monetary policy (and possibly oil shocks), not by fiscal policy.
Basically, in 2000, this Republican narrative was looking pretty good - though not entirely thanks to Republicans. Bill Clinton seemed to have proven that market liberalism did not require exploding deficits and exploding inequality (the ills of the Reagan years) in order to create prosperity. But then came the Bush years, and America doubled down on the Milton Friedman program with more tax cuts, more deregulation, more privatization. And income stagnated, stocks stagnated, and growth was lackluster, while debt and inequality resumed the explosive growth of the Reagan years. By the eve of the financial crisis, the Republican narrative was looking pretty shopworn.
I did not live through the 70s (and was a little kid in the 80s). My generation has seen all of the results of the Milton Friedman revolution, both good and bad. But we missed the revolution itself. The sense of idealism, promise, and heroism that some older intellectuals seem to feel when they recall that revolution is just a little alien to me. I like to think that this makes my generation a little more dispassionate when it comes to evaluating how it all turned out.