Friedman Completed Keynes

The most famous and influential American economist of the past century died in November. Milton Friedman was not the most famous and influential economist in the world -- that honor belongs to John Maynard Keynes. But Milton Friedman ran a close second.

From one perspective, Milton Friedman was the star pupil of, successor to, and completer of Keynes’s work. Keynes, in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money , set out the framework that nearly all macroeconomists use today. That framework is based on spending and demand, the determinants of the components of spending, the liquidity-preference theory of short-run interest rates, and the requirement that government make strategic but powerful interventions in the economy to keep it on an even keel and avoid extremes of depression and manic excess. As Friedman said, “We are all Keynesians now.”

But Keynes’s theory was incomplete: his was a theory of employment, interest, and money. It was not a theory of prices. To Keynes’s framework, Friedman added a theory of prices and inflation, based on the idea of the natural rate of unemployment and the limits of government policy in stabilizing the economy around its long-run growth trend – limits beyond which intervention would trigger uncontrollable and destructive inflation.

Moreover, Friedman corrected Keynes’s framework in one very important respect. The experience of the Great Depression led Keynes and his more orthodox successors to greatly underestimate the role and influence of monetary policy. Friedman, in a 30-year campaign starting with his and Anna J. Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States , restored the balance. As Friedman also said, “and none of us are Keynesian.”