Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ideology and economics

The Economist of August 9 cites the petition by 100 or so U. of Chicago faculty opposing the the naming of a campus instititute after Milton Friedman ("One great brain v. many small ones ... The trouble with Friedman").

The signers were concerned over the "ideological and disciplinary preference" that the naming carried with it. One's opponents are always the ones weighed with the ideological baggage. But what I find much more interesting goes to Friedman's remark in the old Newsweek jousts between Paul Samuelson and Friedman. In an interview, Friedman mentioned that they all practice the same economics, but what separated them was that only one of them thought to apply it to public policy (or something like that; I cannot find the actual reference).

Both men wrote about public policy on a regular basis, but Friedman's apparent innovation was to suggest that considerations of incentives, marginal analysis, property rights, etc. bear profoundly on policy discussions.

I still think that he was on to something. One can be labeled an "ideologue" by one's opponents if one seriously suggests that price controls, legalized barriers to commerce, industrial policy-type programs, etc. have a serious downside -- because that is where economic theory points us.

This also explains why Paul Krugman's columns in the NY Times are not "ideological."