Yet even the most radical ideas of the right for replacing Social Security, Medicare and public education are far from original. Many of today’s conservative policy ideas, including the replacement of progressive income taxes with a flat tax and the reduction of poverty by use of wage subsidies like the earned income tax credit (EITC), are inspired by Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s book was published in 1962. I was born in 1962. I am not young.
The extension of civil rights to gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered Americans is a genuinely revolutionary development. So are many of the debates about the environment and climate change, which involve relatively recent data and some new technologies. As are debates over Internet privacy that would have baffled Americans as recently as the early 1990s.
But when it comes to the basic questions of political economy, I can’t think of a single proposal being debated today that is not a variation of an idea proposed or passed into law between the first election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the passage of Medicare in 1965, a period that includes Milton Friedman’s influential masterpiece. The nearly five decades since have been marked by the same pattern, in which progressives defend and seek to extend the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society, while conservatives, and some neoliberal “New Democrats,” propose variations of the ideas set forth by Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom.
Even what appears to be a profound debate among contemporary conservative policy wonks turns out, upon inspection, to be merely a clash among different factions of Miltonism-Friedmanism. Proposals by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) for a larger child tax credit, reflecting one Friedmanite approach, have been criticized by conservatives who think the focus should be on another one of Uncle Milty’s ideas—flattening federal income tax rates. The debate on the right remains not whether to cut federal taxes, but how.