The already-intense verbal wars at the University of Chicago over a proposed new Milton Friedman Institute ratcheted up yet another notch this week: The eminent Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published a blistering essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education referring to the establishment of the research center as "the vanguard of an intellectual coup d'etat" that would push non-economic research to the margins, turn Chicago into a power base for people who want to abolish Social Security and privatize schools, and generally serve the interests of the world's wealthy.
"The sacrificial reduction of social values to monetary calculations is the essence of Friedman economics," Sahlins wrote, "and helps explain its historic taint as the complement of state terror." Sahlins was reviving criticism of Friedman's having given economic advice to the late Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and having trained many of his economic advisers. (Friedman's supporters say that attempts to link economic advice, which had some notable successes, to Pinochet's more brutal policies is tendentious.)
Chicago announced the creation of the new institute in May. It will start slowly this fall, with some guest lectures, ultimately growing into a center that will bring together scholars from numerous departments. (In a nice irony, the center will take over the buildings that now house the Chicago Theological Seminary, which will get a new home.) Its focus will be fostering analyses of social issues, as well as solutions, "that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services."
In early June, more than a hundred faculty members, including Sahlins, signed an open letter to the university's president, Robert Zimmer, stating that they were "disturbed by the ideological and disciplinary preference" implicit in the "massive support" for the center. In response, economist John Cochrane issued his own letter, mocking some of what he considered the bien pensant jargon in the protest letter ("the Global South" instead of "poor countries"; references to a nefarious "neoliberal global order"), and defending Friedman's credentials both as a first-rate researcher and principled libertarian. "To call him or his political legacy 'right wing' is simply ignorant, and I mean that as a technically accurate description rather than an insult," Cochrane wrote. The administrators and professors involved in planning the center, including three winners of the Nobel in economics, have said it will be open to all political perspective, despite the overarching theme of respect for markets.
In his essay Sahlins focused on one curious aspect of the Friedman Institute: Early donors who give at least $1 million will become members of the Milton Friedman Society and will be granted the privilege of taking part in the center's seminars and workshops. Sahlins called this "rich-man's club" not only "discriminatory" but also "perhaps the most obvious clue to the ideology behind the promoters' assurances of free empirical inquiry."
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