Monday, March 25, 2024

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative (Jennifer Burns)

Milton Friedman was one of the foremost economists of the 20th Century whose contributions to economics and influence on global politics still reverberate to this day. Jennifer Burns has written the first full biography of Friedman in Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative.

Yes, calling this book a biography is accurate as Burns does chronicle Friedman's life from his upbringing in New Jersey to his final years in California. But the book also serves other purposes. First, it's a history of monetarism, which became the prevailing economic theory in much of the West in the late 20th Century and served as the next prevailing theory after Keynesian economics dominated in the wake of the Great Depression. Burns does an excellent job of showing the key players in the "Chicago School" of economics, including Friedman's wife, Rose, and others. 

Second, this book is also a history of conservative politics through the years of Friedman's life. Friedman was an outsized influence on both monetary policy and conservative thinking, with his influence in both fields waning in recent years as populism has taken over much of the American right.

Burns's work is very balanced and thorough but at times a bit too complimentary of some of Friedman's philosophies on social politics and, in the 1980's, deficit spending. However, Burns does provide a very authentic look at someone who was unapologetically conservative in the classical sense of believing in smaller government and effective fiscal policy to help the economy grow.