Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman Dead

Milton Friedman died today, apparently from heart failure (insert joke here about him having a heart). Friedman is most known as being the architect behind the neoliberal shift in economic policies in the last 30 years of the twentieth century, advocating extreme government deregulation and laissez-faire economic policies that allow businesses (and, in reality, especially multinationals) to operate with virtually no governmental oversight. Friedman's theories were applied directly by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s, and still serve as a major source for the free-trade agreemnts that exist throughout the world today.

While Friedman will doubtlessly be remembered as an economic "revolutionary," basically creating the system that came to replace Keynesian economic theory, historical legacy has a far different record. While the effects of neoliberalism in the U.S. and England (often the most cited examples) are often lauded, their history elsewhere is far murkier. Some point to the "success" of Chile in the mid-1970s as proof of Friedman's theory. Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) directly employed students of Friedman to combat high inflation that existed when the coup happened on September 11, 1973 (the inflation was spurred on by many factors, including elites' withholding of goods and spurring on a black market economy). However, while Chile did recover in the 1973-1976 period economically (while also killing nearly 3,000 of its own citizens and torturing thousands more, which doubtlessly those victims viewed as an unfair tradeoff), by the end of the 1970s, the economy was again going down the toilet as the world oil recession set in, and many of the policies Friedman suggested were clearly not only helping, they were actually hurting Chile. Friedman always insisted Chile didn't do things "correctly," yet says this in the face of overwhelming evidence that shows they basically followed the Friedman school to the T. Eventually, Chile had to radically overhaul its economy through the 1980s and 1990s and even today.

Argentina's dictatorship (which killed as many as 30,000 of its own civilians between 1976 and 1983) also employed Friedman's economic theories, and while it, too, witnessed short term gains, the long-term damage of the theories became most evident in 2000-2001, as Argentina's economy completely collapsed under the burden of neoliberalism.

Finally, many will remmber Friedman as a "revolutionary" (as in, changing the landscape in an extreme fashion). Yet we must never forget his association with dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. It wasn't a simple matter of their adopting his policies - Friedman openly applauded both governments and visited them, demonstrating a not-surprising economic tendency to view life only in terms of financial models, and not in terms of humanity, of states torturing and killing their own citizens by the thousands.

So as the world remembers the work of Milton Friedman today, let us also remember his tendency to support dictatorships unquestioningly, as well as recalling not only the thousands of people killed and tortured under governments who were openly hand-in-hand with Friedman, but the millions more whose lives were affected negatively through his economic policies, both in Latin American and worldwide.