The scale of the University's investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is disingenuous to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman's name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist. Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them. The proposal to establish the Institute is deliberately coy, even contradictory on just this point.
Notwithstanding the President's May 2007 charge, appointing an ad hoc committee to create "a major new institute at the University on economics and society,"1 the committee's proposal ignores approaches to this theme that originate in disciplines other than economics, as well as work done by many University faculty that falls outside monetarist approaches. We welcome the President's initial vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.
We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one's apparently are, given the MFI's stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.2 Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.
The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman's views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman's ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.
The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, "a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute."3 Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.
Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors, who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a "free market of ideas," than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually -- or morally -- superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.
The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.4 We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.
Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.5 Given other aspects of the MFI's mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.
1 A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute," submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
2 Ibid., p. 2: "Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would 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."
3 "Milton Friedman Society," available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman's dictum "There is no free lunch" may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
4 The concern for "policy" appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation "to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation" ("A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute," p. 1, emphasis added).
5 "A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute," p. 7.