As we saw in yesterday’s posting, the late, grate Milton Friedman was a past master at diverting attention away from questions he did not want to answer or, more likely, that he could not answer. Like many economists, he seemed to have an extreme animus toward anyone who raised an issue he was unprepared to deal with.
Typically Friedman dodged questions by sneering, running away, or by diverting people’s attention away from anything substantive with skillful use of invective, rhetoric, and creative displays of bad temper that, when you’re old and sufficiently irritable and have a Nobel Prize, get upgraded to “curmudgeonly.”
In any event, regarding the question of wisely and soundly running an economy on the presumed virtue of greed, Kelso and Adler resolved this issue by overcoming what many economists view as the insolvable “problem of scarcity” and the “slavery” of savings. Kelso and Adler did this by inserting the natural moral law based on human nature into the discussion. They rejected the idea that human behavior is completely divorced from human nature. They accepted Aristotle’s understanding of “good”: that for which all human beings strive.
Not that Friedman reserved his displays of bad temper, I mean, his charming and endearing curmudgeonly behavior, for binary economics. In a notorious interview on the Phil Donahue Show in 1979, Friedman avoided answering a straightforward question about whether it was really good for everyone to run an economy on greed by changing the subject. This was done so deftly that it suggests that Friedman had a lot of practice diverting attention away from the real issue, but very little experience in responding to people who insist on getting a straight answer instead of equivocations and childish fits of pique.
Friedman gave a similar performance when interviewed by Jamie Johnson in Johnson’s documentary, The One Percent, about the problem of concentrated wealth. Friedman became so enraged when Johnson pressed the issue that he flung off the microphone in a paroxysm of petulance, snarling that Johnson had exhausted his patience. Most versions available edit out where Friedman stomps out of the room.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Friedman’s antics is that they are actually a cut or two above the sort of critiques manufactured out of whole cloth that the Just Third Way is usually accorded. Friedman, at least, had, if not the intelligence, at least the cunning to know when he was overmatched, and run away at the first — or any — opportunity.