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Keywords: Economics, Politics, Libertarianism, Biogarphy

Title: Milton Friedman: A Biography

Author: Lanny Ebenstein

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN: 1403976279

 

Milton Friedman was one of the leading economists of the twentieth century - a man who earned himself a Nobel Prize and who had an impact on the world far beyond the academic confines of his discipline. He also managed to earn the undying enmity of large numbers of people, and his place in the demonology of the Left will remain unchallenged for years to come. In the popular mind Friedman was responsible for monetarism, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet. This short biography aims to provide an introduction to the general reader who wants to discover more about Friedman, his ideas and his role as a very public and controversial intellectual.

Ebenstein concentrates largely on Friedman's activities as a researcher, academic and public intellectual rather than on the personal details of his life. While there is a certain level of biographical detail, the emphasis is more on the development of his ideas, his relationships with colleagues and engagement in academic and political life. We do learn some details of his childhood but by and large this isn't a narrative of Friedman's life and times. However, we do learn about Friedman's development as an economist, the wide range of colleagues he worked with and his role in the development of the Chicago school of economics.

His work on the monetary theory of inflation, and the enormous influence this has had, is carefully outlined. In the process the solidly empirical nature of his research is emphasised, bringing out an important philosophical component of his view of economics. This was no more evidenced than by his explanation of the Great Depression, in which he showed that it was largely caused by the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve.

The development of Friedman's libertarian views, influenced by contemporaries such as Friedrich Hayek is also discussed. The point is made that while his ideas may have entered the mainstream of economic and political thought, in the beginning his ideas were very much considered on the fringe. However the genesis of Friedman's liberalism (in the classical sense), and his growing mistrust of government is not probed to any great depth.

Finally, the book describes Friedman's engagement with politicians and political issues in different countries, including his controversial contacts with the Pinochet regime. Far from being an advisor to Pinochet, Ebenstein outlines the nature of Friedman's contacts with people who worked with the military regime. He also makes plain Friedman's belief that economic freedom would necessarily lead to political freedom, and that therefore any influence he had in promoting the former would also promote the latter. Ebenstein also points out that Friedman had similar and decidedly less controversial contacts with Left dictatorships, including Communist China.

The final sections of the book focus on Friedman's later years, in particular his interest in the field of education and his advocacy of the policy of school vouchers.

While this is an interesting book, it is largely because of the subject matter and not the writing itself. Ebenstein is clearly in awe of his subject, but he does not do him justice. The writing is flat and repetitive and at times reads more like a long list of distinguished colleagues that Friedman worked with than anything else. Friedman was a controversial figure who stirred great passions - for and against - but there is little of that here.

Contents © London Book Review 2008. Published Januay 07 2008