Hayek vs Friedman: The Tale of the Tape

Get ready to rumble — Charles Rowley takes the measure of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman:

For an economist to make a real impact, in my opinion, four ingredients are necessary.  The first ingredient is genius, the ability to see through the fog of a complex world and identify new insights of true significance for the discipline. The second ingredient is an understanding that economics is about economizing, and that economizing requires that economic models themselves must be economical: they must produce a lot from a little, not a little from a lot. The third ingredient is communication skills. Writing in simple clear sentences is the art of good communication. If an economist uses mathematics and econometrics as a crutch rather than as a tool, he is lost in translation, just as an attorney is lost before a jury if he has to resort to a blackboard to make his point. The fourth ingredient is relevance. Great economists do not waste their talents on the third order of smalls. They direct their energies exclusively to issues of the highest contemporary importance.

Hayek was endowed in full measure with these four ingredients, and used them well. Hayek’s early career focused on the role of knowledge and discovery in market processes and on the methodological underpinnings of  Austrian economics, notably subjectivism and methodological individualism. Throughout a long career, Hayek  focused attention on economics as a coordination problem, and on the role of markets as spontaneous orders  that, to a greater or a lesser degree,  resolve that problem of coordination, not least by signaling inconsistency among the plans of individuals and by providing incentives for the resolution of such inconsistencies.  Hayek was no Utopian.  He fully recognized that market economies periodically experience profound failures of coordination, that panics and recessions, even depressions do occur. He explained, better than anyone else, just how those failures occur, who and what is primarily responsible, and how the process of regeneration can and will occur in a well-functioning market economy.  How much his wisdom would be missed in September 2008 by the fatal conceit of an economics profession that rushed to constructivist rationalist solutions that he had long abjured!

Friedman also was well-endowed with those four ingredients, though in a different balance.  Friedman was less philosophical  than Hayek, better trained in advanced economic theory and econometrics, more narrowly focused on economics, and much more aggressively brilliant in debate. In my judgment, Hayek ranks first, and Friedman second, as the two most influential economists of the second half of the twentieth century. Friedman had a wonderful sense of what was important in the debate between mercantilism and free markets. His work on the consumption function embraced the economics of Keynes while invalidating the Keynesian theory of a powerful fiscal multiplier.  His reformulation of the quantity theory of money and his rigorous testing of its predictions,  laid the foundations for the 1980s re-emergence of monetary policy from its long dangerous sleep throughout the Western World.  His insights on flexible exchange rates provided a crucial basis for the worldwide globalization that surely followed its implementation.  His influential critique of the military draft saved countless Americans from temporary enslavement by the state. Most important of all, his consistent application of high-quality price theory to an understanding of economic issues provided a beacon of light to the economics profession thus transforming the discipline world-wide.

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