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?


I am astonished at the degree of hatred from (I persume) left-wing people here. I mean, what about "free speech" and all those civil rights I hear them talking the other day...

You have a lot of think tanks with snowballing, too, so don't complain. All in all, I'd wager that most of academia is more left leaning than right-wing... Actually, the economics departments of MIT and Harvard are more left-wing than anything else, but does someone complain that they should change? No, because right-wingers seem to understand at least the basics of free speech occasionally.

I'm sorry, but there is rightful agitation and there is agitation for its own sake.. In this case it is the latter.

And this is observed as an outsider (German)! If even someone from abroad does see the irony and hypocrasy in this, then I'd really think about it twice...

Cdn Exat

Picking up on Kent's remark, in my view, the field of sociology owes a great debt to Gary Becker for the way he has over the last thirty years added intellectual rigor to what had been a moribund area of study. The old joke used to be that sociologists just invent words for things they see happen more than a time or two and that's it. One doesn't have to buy into Becker's political philosophy to appreciate the clarity and precision of his modeling strategy. It is hard to think of a more deserving Nobel prize winner.


i have never asked if the rockefellers have influence at the university. forgive me for asking


From what I gather here on campus most of the complaints about the institute have more to do with its being named after Friedman, not with the institution itself. Many here are concerned that it will lose its credibility as a research institute if it is named after him. They don't want it turning into another Hoover Institute...

However, for all the hubbub it is causing here in Hyde Park, I think John Cochrane (who is at the GSB and on the board for the institute) said it best:

"There will be no ties to any party," he said. "It will not be a home for administration officials while Republicans wait out the [ Barack] Obama administration."

Cesar Gonzales

Those that oppose the Institute on the basis that it exclusively represents right wing ideology are uninformed about Milton's entire body of work.

I reject the hypothesis that Milton was conservative. Rather he was a self-proclaimed libertarian, and even advocated liberal ideas that would offend many right wing conservatives. One example was his position on illegal drugs (although not necessarily my opinion or that of the Institute). His work was more about liberty than anything else - and that is more of a liberal attitude than a conservative one.

Economics may have been his tool, but ultimately, freedom was Milton's cause.


Well, how interesting. You express what the complaint is - that the Institute would be a wholly right wing think tank - and then pretend like the issue hasn't been raised.

If the institute was fair - if, for instance, a left wing institutionalist economist would get a fair shake at getting a sinecure there - go ahead. But it sounds like another rightwing snowjob, another AEI. If it is associated with the University of Chicago, the university ought to have final say about the institute - not a far right hawk like Gary Becker. Otherwise, people at the University of Chicago - at which such fine socialists as John Dewey have taught - ought to ask the institute to cut the tie to the University. Then it would be fine - another Heritage Foundation, with the same dim fundamentalists.


It is quite unsettling that an institution that prides itself on vigorous intellectual thought and challenging any and all conventional wisdom would try to shoot down the Friedman Institute. Milton Friedman's legacy is a gem to the University of Chicago, one of the biggest names in the history of the field of economics. While some in academia see fit to only acknowledge the left, and whine and complain if we're not a welfare/socialist state, others can see Friedman's teachings for what they are; beautiful economic truths with no particular bias, left or right. U of C only hurts itself, its alumni, and future students by harming this great man's reputation.



What basis do you have for assuming the institute will be "another rightwing snowjob" rather than a place to explore and discover economic truths and to foster intellectual debate? Why would you assume a "left wing" economist wouldn't have an equal chance of getting an appointment there? Why does an economist--as dedicated to finding the truth as any other academic (and more than most academics in the humanities and social sciences)--have to be labeled left- or right-wing at all?

From what I've read, the University of Chicago has ALREADY decided to let plans for the institute go ahead. You just seem upset that the very small minority viewpoint, as expressed by professors without the background knowledge or expertise to deliver an informed, valid opinion, hasn't won the day.

As for Gary Becker, he may or may not have the views of a "right wing hawk" -- a term you use as an epithet but that I think has positive connotations, by the way -- but the quality of his academic work is about as impeccable as it gets. I think I'll trust his views over those of an illogical, ranting paranoid who makes unfounded conclusions and insists on labeling them as truth, thank you very much.



misterb: You can always check out the Wikipedia page for the Chicago school: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_(economics)


Josh -

The Coop has made small profits in recent years (though not every single year). It has not paid out dividends, though, as the profits are generally razor thin.

As for why people care, it is not so much that you could not buy the books somewhere else, but that the Coop provides a value-added service: the books they put out on their tables are often terribly interesting and generally deal with subjects that one would never just decide to look up on Amazon. Also, the benefit of having shelves of scholarly books to browse is huge when you are not quite sure what it is you want.


Well, you could fly in a dictator, bring a couple Chicago boys to tutor him, and round up the co-op members. For re-education, of course. You could even call it a grand experiment, if that soothes your soul.



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

It is doing so.


As a UC Alum, I can not understand the opposition to the Milton Friedman Institute and I am disappointed that so many of the current faculty object. Are these opponents afraid of the power of Milton Friedmans's ideas because they are unable to offer cogent competing ideas?

Would they have led the opposition against Darwin, Galieo, or any great thinker just because they held a different view. Or would they encourage debate and let the facts lead you were they will. Are some on the faculty so insecure in their own ideas that they fear being lost in the shadow of Milton Friedman?

If the New York Times can survive the views of Paul Krugman, the University of Chicago can flourish with the Milton Friedman Institute.


Josh (13):

Though one might argue that there are efficiencies to buying books online, the value that the Seminary Co-op adds to the Hyde Park community and the University of Chicago campus in particular transcends that of a "mere" bookstore.

The Co-op facilitates the discovery of important, illuminating and/or just plain interesting books that simply are too obscure to be discovered on Amazon or through some other online seller. As such, it plays an important role in fostering the unique environment of pure intellectual debate and exploration for which the University of Chicago is justifiably renown.

I will admit that the actual physical space that the Seminary Co-op occupied was always a little stuffy/stale for my taste. I do hope that they find a new location that is more centrally located than on 60th Street. Having lived at the B-J dorms for part of my College career, I can attest that 60th St. was more remotely located than its location on a campus map would suggest. The Co-op deserves better.



Dr. Levitt,

Can you explain how thinking like a University of Chicago economist differs from thinking like a run-of-the-mill economist? I'm sincerely curious, although I wonder if a UC Berkeley physics prof would say that it's hard to think like a "UC physicist".


As a recent economics graduate I looked at my schooling as follows: isnt the idea of going to university to learn as many different ways of thinking as possible, and take these new ideas as ways to form your own opinions and conclusions. If UC doesnt want this institute it is only going to hurt their own students


"It is doing so."

How do you figure that?

Justin P

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.


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


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.