Once upon a time there was a master narrative, and a neater little theory-of-everything you never did see. In its 19th century heyday, it rationalized the having of the haves and commanded the deference of the have-nots; it spoke from the pulpit, the newspaper and the professor’s chair.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Its name was “market”, and to slight it in even the smallest way was to take your professional life into your hands. In 1895, economist Edward Bemis found this out when he was dismissed from John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago, thanks to his “attitude on public utility and labour questions,” as he put it in a letter to Upton Sinclair. Professors elsewhere paid the same price for intellectual independence.
But the orthodoxy lost its power of life and death. Academia developed protections for scholars who pursued unpopular ideas. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago went on to become the pre-eminent research university in the land, a temple of free enquiry and a magnet for Nobel Prizes. I studied there and loved its atmosphere of endless debate.
Today, though, that old master narrative is back in a softer form. The market doesn’t so much intimidate scholars and bend them in particular, profitable directions. For example, a contract between Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Philip Morris reportedly gives that company the right to veto publication of certain research done by VCU professors. The New York Times tells of a prominent Harvard child psychologist, a powerful advocate for certain drugs, who received large consulting fees from drug manufacturers. Further examples could be piled up by the dozen.
And now, courtesy of the University of Chicago, we get a glimpse of what might come next. As I mentioned a few months ago, the university has launched a $200 million academic enterprise called the Milton Friedman Institute, after the famous economist and Nobel laureate.
I have no problem with something being named after Milton Friedman. American University once had a building named after Adnan Kashoggi. At West Virginia University there is a Kmart chair of marketing. At the University of Memphis there is an Arthur Andersen chair of excellence in accountancy.
What ought to alarm us, though, is the Milton Friedman Institute’s apparent plan to transform free-market orthodoxy into a bankable intellectual product. What is evidently going to reel in the dollars here is not research but ideology.
I say “apparent” and “evidently” because the institute won’t open its doors until this fall. But the proposal which launched it fairly drips with politics. The institute is to be concerned with economics, yes, but only with a specific sort of economics: with those that “reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including his...advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the history of religions who is helping lead a faculty protest against the institute, told me the proposal “takes it as settled, once and for all, that the market is the only reasonable actor, while states, non-governmental organizations, and others just make a mess of things. ...That’s an ideologically committed, narrow perpetuation of a right-wing orthodoxy.”
But what’s the point in defending free-market orthodoxy if there’s no free-market action for its defenders? The Milton Friedman Institute may have the answer, via an adjunct organization called the Milton Friedman Society — which, according to a University website, will confer upon “donors at the $1 million and $2 million level” the right to participate in institute proceedings.
Actually, those high networth individuals aren’t giving, they’re giving back, rewarding the orthodoxy that secures their wealth. “When you think about the big battle between socialism and free markets,” mused Edward Snyder, dean of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, in a Bloomberg interview, Friedman “led the charge on behalf of the University of Chicago. There are a lot of people who will give back because of his name and effort and legacy.”
Will there be room at the institute for true academic debate? University provost Thomas Rosenbaum assured me that the institute would bring in Keynesian economists as well as traditional Friedmanites, and that it would “make the University of Chicago a destination place for scholars across the spectrum.” Furthermore, he said, “no intellectual enterprise at the university will ever be for sale.”
Still, considering Snyder’s remark about the “big battle”, one may doubt. All sorts of academic disciplines are concerned with economies; thinkers of every description have defensible ideas on the subject. But apparently the only debate that ever mattered was between socialism and markets and now that debate is settled. The intellectual cartel is back in the saddle, and no doubt the haves will soon be toasting its brilliance just like in the old days.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Thomas Frank is a columnist with WSJ. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org