Friedman and the limits of academic pluralism

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Pluralism is the mark of intellectual seriousness: recognition of the force of a wide range of arguments with which one does not agree.

The University of Chicago is appealing for $200m to establish a Milton Friedman Institute. The plan to honour the university’s most famous economist is arousing controversy. A petition to the university’s president from a group of professors reports that “many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout most of the global south, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image”.

To see what is wrong with this statement, change it only slightly – “many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Anthropology, especially throughout most of the business community, where they have often to defend the University’s reputation in the face of its negative image”.

Great universities such as the University of Chicago should neither adopt nor discard ideas to appease particular constituencies. Universities pursue ideas because they are interesting and important, not because of their ideological origin or policy consequences. That is what distinguishes universities from religious institutions and political parties.

Friedman’s supporters have rushed to his defence, and to claim – with justice – that his work enhanced the university’s reputation. Still, I shall not be making a contribution to the Friedman Institute. Friedman’s simplifications and exaggerations, while provocative and stimulating in the hands of a man of his intelligence and originality, become tedious when pursued by less talented acolytes. But the relevant issue is not whether Friedman was right or wrong. It is whether Friedman was a sufficiently distinguished figure and his thinking sufficiently weighty to be commemorated in the manner proposed. On that there is no doubt.

It would be deplorable if Friedman’s ideas were to be the only ones studied in universities. But the liberal propensities of most academics make that unlikely. Rich people tend to be of conservative disposition – that is why Chicago’s appeal has an ambitious funding target. But the insatiable demand of the successful for indulgences assures that there is also funding for research on global poverty and climate change. Pluralism in ideas and in sources of revenue has always been the key to advance in scientific knowledge.

What then of the professors at the University of Central Lancashire, whose similar petition against the university’s specialism in alternative medicine has led to the suspension of Britain’s only degree course in homeopathy? The sensitivities of students and staff are easy to appreciate. Some students earn their degrees by studying elementary particles or by coming to appreciate the difference between claims in tort and in equity. Others obtain equivalent qualifications by studying pressure points on the soles of the feet or the difference between the yin and the yang. I sympathise with those who feel that the achievements of the physicists and lawyers are devalued when they graduate alongside the complementary therapists.

There is a fine line between pluralism and the approval of bunkum, and only a brave and foolish individual is always sure what lies on one side rather than the other. Pluralism is the mark of intellectual seriousness: recognition of the force of a wide range of arguments with which one does not agree. This intellectual tolerance is a rarer commodity than it should be. Both campuses and trading floors contain high concentrations of people with common values and views. The internet and the polarisation of the media have made it easier to confine your sources of information to what you already know, and the opinions you hear to those you already hold.

But to welcome divergent views is not to say that anything goes. There is a difference between accepting that there may be alternative interpretations of the same evidence and respecting a view for which there is no evidence simply because someone holds it. That difference is why the Friedman Institute is appropriate for a major university, and a school of homeopathy inappropriate even for a minor one.

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