The Controversy over the Milton Friedman Institute–Richard Posner

Milton Friedman was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished economists, and one of the century’s three economists (the other two being John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek) who had the greatest political influence–and he was the only American in the group. Friedman spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, so it is natural that the University should name a major new component of the University, devoted to economic research, after him. The Institute is essentially a joint venture of the University’s economics department, graduate school of business, and law school. The use of his name will help the University raise the funds required for the new Institute.

The decision, announced five months ago, has generated controversy on the University campus, sharpened by the current economic crisis that is thought in some circles to have damaged Friedman’s legacy (it has certainly damaged Alan Greenspan’s legacy). Some 170 faculty members have signed a petition circulated by a Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society–which opposes the decision naming the new institute after Friedman–asking that a meeting of the University Senate (which consists of some University administrators and all faculty members who have been on the faculty for more than a year) be convened to discuss the decision. The stated ground of opposition is that naming the Institute after Friedman would constitute the University’s endorsement of his political views and would bias the research conducted by the Institute in favor of the free-market ideology that Friedman promoted so strongly. But the opposition is also and probably primarily powered by distaste for Friedman’s political and policy views and for his willingness to provide economic advice to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman’s association with policies that are either liberal or politically neutral, such as the volunteer army, the earned income tax credit (the negative income tax), the legalization of the laws against marijuana and other mind-altering drugs, and even affirmative action, is overlooked.

I don’t think anyone would quarrel with the idea of an institute devoted to the support of academic research on economic issues, even though many of the issues that economists examine have political implications. The name is the focus of the controversy. Friedman was an advocate of politically controversial policies with which a number of University faculty do not want the University to be associated. When buildings, classrooms, institutes, schools, etc. in universities are named after someone, it is usually a donor. Especially when an institute, which is likely to be a special-purpose organization, is named after a public figure, it is natural to associate the mission of the organization with the name of that figure: the Hoover Institution of Stanford University was named after Herbert Hoover and is indeed conservative, though it is noteworthy that the Institution’s conservative reputation has not extended to Stanford University as a whole, and no more would one expect the University of Chicago to be branded as conservative merely because it contains an institute named after a conservative economist. The University of Chicago is not a conservative institution, though it is not as monolithically liberal as its peer institutions.

The purpose of naming the new institute after Friedman was presumably to encourage fund-raising; one economics professor at the University has been quoted as saying that Friedman’s name would “resonate with the donors.” So a further worry is that most of the donors will be conservatives who support Friedman’s political views (that is to say, his conservative political views, as many of his views were not conservative), and that the new Institute will perhaps unconsciously bias hiring and promotion in favor of economists who support those views. The Institute might (again, whether consciously or unconsciously), it is feared, conceive its mission as being to promote the ideas of the “Chicago School of Economics,” of which Friedman was perhaps the leading (though not the founding), and certainly the most influential, member.

But that is unlikely. Economics is a highly competitive academic field, and piety toward distinguished predecessors is not the path to academic success. It is odd that the opponents of the Friedman naming should think that economists, of all people, would subordinate career motives to loyalty to Friedman’s memory or the “Chicago School” (especially young economists for whom Friedman is just a name). If the religion professor who is leading the movement against the naming is right that “Friedman’s over”–that the current economic crisis has consigned Friedman, along with Greenspan, to the dustbin of economic history–he should have no fear that the new Institute will be biased in favor of Friedman’s views. If a physics institute were named after Albert Einstein, would the institute’s researchers reject quantum theory?

It might seem that the controversy could be easily resolved by simply changing the name of the Institute. But that would be costly to the University in several respects. First, it would doubtless offend many donors, and probably leave the Institute in worse financial shape than had it not been named after Friedman in the first place. Second, it would weaken the University administration and encourage the encroachment by faculty on administration prerogatives. There is a whiff of the 1960s in the effort by faculty (joined by a number of students) to move the University of Chicago leftward. Even if the original naming of the Institute after Friedman was a mistake, there is now too much at stake for the University administration to back down.

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