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Milton Friedman

The Last Conservative

Jennifer Burns

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374601143
ISBN13: 9780374601140


592 Pages



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Milton Friedman was, alongside John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the twentieth century. His work was instrumental in the turn toward free markets that defined the 1980s, and his full-throated defenses of capitalism and freedom resonated with audiences around the world. It’s no wonder the last decades of the twentieth century have been called “the Age of Friedman”—or that analysts have sought to hold him responsible for both the rising prosperity and the social ills of recent times.

In Milton Friedman, the first full biography to employ archival sources, the historian Jennifer Burns tells Friedman’s extraordinary story with the nuance it deserves. She provides lucid and lively context for his groundbreaking work on everything from why dentists earn less than doctors, to the vital importance of the money supply, to inflation and the limits of government planning and stimulus. She traces Friedman’s longstanding collaborations with women, including the economist Anna Schwartz, as well as his complex relationships with powerful figures such as Fed Chair Arthur Burns and Treasury Secretary George Shultz, and his direct interventions in policymaking at the highest levels. Most of all, Burns explores Friedman’s key role in creating a new economic vision and a modern American conservatism. The result is a revelatory biography of America’s first neoliberal—and perhaps its last great conservative.


Praise for Milton Friedman

"Burns shows that the ideas of Milton Friedman are still shaping our world. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, there's a lot to learn from this book. More than a biography of one controversial person, it's an intellectual history of twentieth century economic thought."—Greg Rosalesky, Planet Money (NPR)

"[Burns makes] the case in her intriguing biography Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative that Friedman’s legacy cannot be shaken so easily . . . Friedman’s thought, she argues, is more complex and subtle than has been understood: He raised pressing questions about the market, individualism, and the role of the state that will be with us for as long as capitalism endures. Burns’s effort to recast the brash economist as a nuanced analyst usefully situates him in his 20th-century context."Kim Phillips-Fein, The Atlantic

"The first full-scale account of [Friedman's] personal and professional life, impact and legacy. Richly detailed, well-informed and informative, judicious and accessible, Burns’ book is also, in essence, a primer on economics over the last century . . . Burns makes a compelling case that Friedman continues to cast a long shadow on economic and social policy."Glenn Altschuler, The Messenger

"Deeply researched and beautifully written, [Milton Friedman] makes the personal and intellectual life of Friedman jump off the page. Burns not only captures Friedman’s life but conveys in her telling of that story the broader intellectual life of America and the global political and economic order of the 20th century . . . A brilliant book, written by a first-rate scholar in accessible and graceful prose."—Peter Boettke, National Review

"[An] excellent new biography . . . Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative shines as an exploration of Friedman's ideas and accomplishments."Brian Doherty, Reason

“A marvelous new biography . . . the book can also be read as a tour of the broader debate about capitalism, as seen through the eyes of a man who had an unwavering view from the start . . . Thanks to Burns . . . we have the building blocks for a less reductive narrative about the marketplace of ideas and ideas about the market."—Jeremy Adelman, Project Syndicate

"To call this book merely a biography of Milton Friedman is a disservice. It would be difficult to imagine a more comprehensive portrait of the influences, hard economics, and personal struggles and triumphs that shaped his life . . . [Burns] is evenhanded throughout and unafraid to critique . . . Sharp and illuminating . . . A masterful profile of a most consequential American."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"One of the most brilliant biographies of Friedman to date. For both general readers and economics scholars."Library Journal (starred review)

"Robust . . . A comprehensive accounting of Friedman’s legacy."Publishers Weekly

"How did Milton Friedman become Milton Friedman? Jennifer Burns offers a definitive answer to the question, deftly blending the personal and professional sides of Friedman’s life to paint a full portrait of the man, his ideas, his times, and his enduring influence. Husband, father, friend, scholar, policy adviser, public intellectual, and debater, she provides the full Monty on Uncle Milty."—Bruce Caldwell, co-author of Hayek: A Life

"Jennifer Burns has written what will stand as the definitive biography of Milton Friedman. It is full of insight and excitement, and I learned many new things from it."—Tyler Cowen, co-author of Talent and author of Big Business

"This is biography at its best: a probing, revelatory, and engrossing account of the restless intellect, extraordinary life, and controversial politics of Milton Friedman. All future reckonings with this towering and divisive figure must now start with Jennifer Burns’s brilliant book."—Gary Gerstle, author of The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order

“Jennifer Burns has not just written an elegantly crafted and unfailingly perceptive biography of the most influential and controversial American economist who ever lived. In narrating the long life of Milton Friedman, she has also given us a lucid history of economic thought and its outsize influence on the politics of the United States—and the world. This is a book that anyone who cares about the role of ideas in the making of the twentieth century should read and enjoy.”—Michael Kazin, author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

"Jennifer Burns’s Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative is a stunning achievement. In addition to a beautifully crafted and deeply researched biography of Friedman, Burns has given us an education in economic history and a tour of American beliefs, fears, and hopes throughout the tumultuous 20th century. She shows how Friedman revolutionized both economics and politics, and captures the nuances of a brilliant man whose work is more often caricatured than captured. She tells the stories of the hidden figures, too; the women and men whose ideas shaped Friedman’s own, but whose identities were hidden by the prejudices of their day. And she wraps this all into a complete page-turner of a book."—Debora L. Spar, author of Work Mate Marry Love and Wonder Women

"If you love Milton, as I do, for his intellectual honesty and devotion to liberty, you can't stop reading this graceful, balanced life of the man in full. If you think you hate him, I’ll bet you also can't stop reading. You'll emerge respecting him, and seeing him not as a “conservative” but as the truest liberal of modern economics."—Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Cato Institute

“Brilliantly researched and elegantly balanced, Jennifer Burns’s biography shows how Milton Friedman—argumentative, stubbornly out of step, frequently wrong and sometimes brilliantly right—became the most influential public economist of his age.”—Daniel T. Rodgers, author of Age of Fracture

“Milton Friedman, like John Maynard Keynes, was a political economist concerned with public policy.
And both men’s influence began in the twentieth century and continues today. But unlike Keynes,
we knew little about how Friedman’s brilliance developed—until now. Read this book and learn.”—William L. Silber, author of Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


In many ways Milton Friedman was a devil figure in my youth … I grew to see the issue as more nuanced.


Rumpled and unpretentious, standing barely five feet tall, peering through...

About the author

Jennifer Burns

Jennifer Burns is an associate professor of history at Stanford University, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. She has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and Dissent, and has discussed her work on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and other programs.