Professor Irwin accomplishes a great deal in this short book. He re-examines the dreadful episode of the Great Depression, 1929-33, indeed the entire decade of the 1930s. His particular focus is on the collapse of global trade, and he offers an alternative explanation for that collapse from the standard one. He enlarges our understanding of trade and trade policy in that era. His contribution is the more notable because he unites two fields that are typically kept separate: international trade and international finance. His analysis relies on a trilemma articulated by Milton Friedman: “fixed exchange rates, stable internal prices, unrestricted multilateral…
Did Friedman Give the Slip to “Money Mischief”?
In the preface to the twenty-year anniversary (1982) edition of Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman had reason to gloat. He got to point out that since its publication in 1962, the book had sold 400,000 copies despite not getting reviewed, as Friedman put it, “by any national publication—not by the New York Times…or by Time or Newsweek,” the latter having sponsored beginning in 1966, on the strength of Capitalism and Freedom, an immensely popular column of Friedman’s. Friedman also could observe that by the time his next magnum opus had rolled around (1980’s Free to Choose, co-authored with his wife Rose), it was already set up on publication with a television deal and the expectation of huge print runs.
In 1982, in addition, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and Margaret Thatcher prime minister of the United Kingdom, with Friedman advising the former in an official capacity. It was fairly clear at that point that the principles and recommendations of Capitalism and Freedom stood an excellent chance of being realized in policy and practice over a good portion of the developed world.
And yet it remains true that today, even given the free-market revolution that swept through the advanced world a generation and some ago, there are not too many concrete things in Capitalism and Freedom that one can identify as normative. Indeed, the most commonly cited “victory” of Capitalism and Freedom is the institution of an all-volunteer military in the United States, and that achievement dates from quite early on, 1973.
Now to be sure, many things have moderated in the direction indicated by Capitalism and Freedom a half a century ago. There has been a considerable degree of trade liberalization across the globe since the 1980s; the progressive income tax got cut down such that since 1987, 40% is the closest we in the United States have come to the top rate that prevailed in 1962 of 91%; and there has been a round of welfare reform. But some signature items still seem a universe away, above all the cause to which the Friedmans dedicated their last years: voucher-led school reform.
There is one item in Capitalism and Freedom, however, that has had a rather splendid career since shortly after the book came out, and the results have been at best ambiguous. This concerns the very center of the Friedman expertise: monetary arrangements. Two chapters of the book, those on “The Control of Money” and “International Trade Arrangements,” go over policy reforms that by and large have been adopted. We can see, and not altogether to our pleasure, where we have been led by them.