We're Not All Friedmanites Now

by Chris Sturr | August 27, 2008

From Thomas Frank’s WSJ column last week, unrest at the University of Chicago over the soon-to-be unveiled Milton Friedman Institute:

We’re Not All Friedmanites Now

By Thomas Frank

Once upon a time there was a master narrative, and a neater little theory-of-everything you never did see. In its 19th century heyday it rationalized the having of the haves and commanded the deference of the have-nots; it spoke from the pulpit, the newspaper and the professor’s chair.

Its name was market, and to slight it in even the smallest way was to take your professional life into your hands. In 1895, the economist Edward Bemis found this out when he was dismissed from John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago thanks to his “attitude on public utility and labor questions,” as he put it in a letter to Upton Sinclair. Professors elsewhere paid the same price for intellectual independence.

But the orthodoxy lost its power of life and death. Academia developed protections for scholars who pursued unpopular ideas. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago went on to become the pre-eminent research university in the land, a temple of free inquiry and a magnet for Nobel prizes. I studied there and loved its atmosphere of endless debate.

-snip-

What ought to alarm us, though, is the Milton Friedman Institute’s apparent plan to transform free-market orthodoxy into a bankable intellectual product. What is evidently going to reel in the dollars here is not research but ideology.

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  1. By taking the neoliberals’ “free market” rhetoric at face value (I lost count of the number of times he referred to “the free market” and “laissez-faire” in What’s the Matter with Kansas?), Frank becomes a useful idiot for the corporate plutocracy.The corporate establishment has a vested interest in promoting the idea “laissez-faire” equates to corporate domination. The left ought to be demonizing the corporate welfare queens in terms of their own “free market” rhetoric, taking every opportunity to show them up as hypocrites. But Frank takes their “free market” pretensions at face value, playing directly into their propaganda strategy.The fact of the matter is, corporate capitalism is a creature of the state from its very beginnings, starting with the land-grant railroads, high industrial tariffs, and the pooling of state-granted patent monopolies to cartelize industry. Today the dominant corporate sectors in the global economy are all heavily reliant on “intellectual property” (biotech, software, entertainment), direct state subsidies (military industry), or both (agribusiness, electronics). And if it weren’t for the role of state subsidies in promoting artificially large market area and firm size, we’d be living in an economy that bore more resemblance to Borsodi’s and Mumford’s ideas than those of Alfred Chandler. We’d have a decentralized economy of small-scale production for local markets.And when Frank constantly repeats his refrain about “market fundamentalism” and “laissez-faire,” the corporate ruling class laughs itself silly at what a patsy he is.

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