David Warsh on the New Milton Friedman Institute

There is a mini-controversy on the University of Chicago campus surrounding the announcement of plans to raise money for a Milton Friedman Institute here at the university. Some non-economists are concerned that the Friedman Institute will push a right-wing agenda and tarnish the reputation of the university. Some who knew Friedman well have the opposite worry: that the Institute won’t actually carry on Friedman’s vision.

David Warsh‘s latest column is about the controversy.

My own view is the following:

The Chicago economics department views the world differently than anyone else, even other economics departments. Having learned my economics at Harvard and M.I.T., I took my first teaching job at Chicago with the very explicit idea that I would spend two or three years in Chicago to get to “know the enemy.” After I figured out how they thought, I would escape back to more comfortable surroundings.

Well two things happened that I didn’t expect. First, it turned out that it wasn’t so easy to learn to think like a Chicago economist. I’ve been trying to learn for more than a decade and I still have learned only the rudiments. Every day my colleagues teach me something I should know, but don’t. Second, I decided that the Chicago approach to economics was the right one for me, even though I am not that good at it.

A diversity of views is almost always a good thing. Relative to Harvard, M.I.T., Princeton, Stanford, and other top schools, the Chicago economics department is small both in terms of size and resources. The Friedman Institute will increase the scale at which Chicago economics will operate, giving us a better chance of competing with the other top schools for faculty and students. The Friedman Institute will help us compete in the marketplace for ideas.

And what economist — Chicago or otherwise — could argue with that?

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  1. hild says:

    My understanding is that within the university community, the most controversial aspect of the plan has nothing to do with economic concepts but rather is opposition to the potential eviction of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, an invaluable landmark.

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  2. AC says:

    Very interesting post. I basically agree — I am on the fence about some of Friedman’s “politics” but it’s fundamentally hard to question his legendary contributions to empirical science not only in economics, but also to statistics.

    I think it’s probably a healthy thing that some Professors are speaking out against allowing the institute from becoming politicized, but the Institute should absolutely proceed: with this name, and with an understanding that all strong research is welcome, regardless of it’s political implications.

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  3. Brad says:

    But wait! Using my Chicago logic, if the Friedman Institute was worth creating, the market would have already done so!

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  4. doug says:

    Would an Institute that promotes a left-leaning agenda be more acceptable?

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  5. ERG says:

    The Seminary Co-op Bookstore is NOT getting evicted.

    It is able to stay or, if it so chooses, move to a location that allows for expansion. (There are some at the Co-op who would love a bigger place with better circulation!)

    The Co-op, arguably the best academic bookstore in the country, is an essential part of the University of Chicago identity. I don’t see it going anywhere.

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  6. Justin P says:

    Anyone that wants to know more about Friedman’s contributions should watch the Commanding Heights series from PBS. You can find it online to watch for free. Just search for it.

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  7. ninth says:

    Brad….

    Re:
    “But wait! Using my Chicago logic, if the Friedman Institute was worth creating, the market would already done so!”

    It is doing so.

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  8. Kent says:

    Part of the distaste for Milton Friedman apparently comes from a logical flaw in assuming Friedman’s views are 100 percent equivalent to those who were (at least nominally) advocates of his conclusions.

    For example, though Augusto Pinochet certainly read Friedman, to assume that Friedman was the one who had advocated mass murder of thousands of Chileans is absurd.

    And if a history of religion or music professor objects to the creation of a Friedman Institute because they disagree with the quality of Friedman’s work (which seems to be the implication), well — they’re hardly qualified to comment, aren’t they?

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