Monday, July 21, 2008

Poor, poor Milton Friedman

Jonathan Chait, a liberal at the New Republic, has written the picture perfect criticism of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. (This courtesy of the Cato blog.)

My interest has been piqued ever since I first heard news of Klein's book back in April- from the first story on, it seemed to me as though Klein's basic thesis was basically a giant liberal conspiracy gone horribly wrong. Not only were corporations bad, but the entirety of armed conflicts and the brutal excesses of authoritarian governments could be attributed to Milton Friedman and his free market ideology. As a huge fan of Milton Friedman who has been highly influenced by the man's work, this was an almost personal attack. And the worst part was, none of it was true.

As Chait points out, there are enough bad guys in the world without having to make anything up. The thing is, if you want to write at anti-corporate book, you've got plenty of material. As a libertarian, I can see the good in fact-based criticisms of the ties between government and large corporate interests. The problem is, such intertwined links between corporations and government is the antithesis of what Milton Friedman and his free market school of economics has stood for. Friedman steadfastly believed that the government had no business in the economy and that limited government intervention stood to benefit both rich and poor alike. Friedman was also a strong proponent of democracy and believed that free market reforms in authoritarian states such as Chile would eventually lead to political democracy.

Klein's most glaring error, as noted by Chait, is her inability to distinguish neo-conservatism, a conservative political philosophy which accepted the modern liberal welfare state at home and focussed more on an aggressive foreign policy, from Friedman's libertarian, free market beliefs. It's not a stretch to say neo-conservatives supported the war in Iraq- It is a stretch to say Friedman supported the war in Iraq. Like many libertarians, Friedman explicitly rejected the use of force in Iraq before his death.

I could go on, but Chait is a better writer than I and makes a much more convincing case, particularly given that he's coming from a liberal perspective. What's interesting are those who come to Klein's defense in the comment section. Every single one either accuses Chait of being a corporate stooge or brings up yet another historical example of the evil free market at work, or some combination of the two. Not a one actually addresses the arguments made by Chait or the issue that Klein may have gotten a lot of her facts wrong. What's more than a bit disturbing is this devotion to the narrative despite whatever the actual facts may be. It's just plain destructive thinking, if you can actually call it thinking. Debate about ideas is always important, but Klein's book isn't about ideas- it's merely an entertaining narrative for the ignorant or the previously converted.


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