Samuelson, Friedman and the Debate that Shaped Economic Policy

The greatest economic challenge of the second half of the 20th century was over how to fight the crippling inflation of the 1970s. It pitted the monetarist Milton Friedman against the Keynesian Paul Samuelson, and the debate between the two shaped economic thinking and policymaking to this day.

The British journalist Nicholas Wapshott’s Samuelson Friedman, a sequel to his earlier book, Keynes Hayek, promises an exciting Shootout at the OK Corral.

But it doesn’t deliver. (The silly book titles don’t help either.)

Nobel laureates Paul Samuelson, left of center, and Milton Friedman, firmly on the right,1 had much more in common than not – they were both passionate believers in the efficiency and rightness of the supply-demand-price system, which is the organizing principle for any voluntary economy. They were friends and admired each other’s work. While their policy views differed substantially, if they had not had alternating columns in Newsweek from 1966 to 1984, they would not have been cast as opposites in this or any book.

The two men differed on how large a role government should have in society. Don’t we all? Put two economists, or two political thinkers, or two ordinary citizens in a room and you’ll have at least three opinions on the question.