The Economist as Scapegoat

Russ Roberts
11 min readJan 30, 2020
Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

A lot of things are thought to be wrong with America these days. A rising suicide rate. Opioid addiction and deaths. Unaffordable housing in America’s most prosperous cities. Rising inequality. Pockets of poverty in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. Steadily declining jobs in the manufacturing sector. A falling marriage rate. Stagnant wages. Health care costs spiraling higher as life expectancy falls. Very high levels of government debt. Very high levels of student debt. A stubbornly high trade deficit. A failing elementary and secondary education system for many.

Some of these problem may be mere statistical artifacts. Others may not be real problems at all. But it seems difficult to dismiss all of them. Surely, something has gone wrong.

These kinds of social problems and processes are difficult to quantify in any way that allows for reliable statistical precision in weighting different possible explanations. It’s complicated.

But according to some observers, the source of America’s problem isn’t complicated at all. One man and his ideology explains what ails us. Who is this man?

Milton Friedman, of course.

Allegedly, Friedman, once a lone voice in the wilderness of ideas, managed to convince the economics profession, the intellectual elites, and ultimately the American people that market forces should be left to their own devices, that what is now called neoliberalism is the road to prosperity for all Americans.

Now to be sure, according to the critics of Friedman’s ideas and the impact of those ideas, he had help from F.A. Hayek and other economists. But Friedman and Hayek are the big two. According to the critics, they are the evil twins of laissez-faire dog-eat-dog capitalism that convinced Americans that government was bad and that markets could solve every problem. The result is what is sometimes called a fetishization of markets, or a blind faith in markets, or a knee-jerk aversion to government spending and government solutions.

Here is Binyamin Appelbaum writing in the New York Times in an essay adapted from his book, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets and the Fracture of Society:

In the four decades between 1969 and 2008, economists played a leading role in slashing taxation of…

Russ Roberts

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.