1973 Classic: Milton Friedman’s “Barking Cats” Posted on January 5, 2013by Necessary and Proper


1973 Classic: Milton Friedman’s “Barking Cats”

Free market economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) won the Nobel Peace Prize for economics in 1976.

Milton FriedmanFriedman published more than 800 columns and articles in his career.  From 1966 to 1984, he wrote a series of more than 300 columns for Newsweek on economics, often alternated with other columnists holding opposing views in order to foster the vigorous debate he relished.  Here is an interesting 1983 quotefrom Friedman, looking back on his Newsweek experience:

(photo credit)

“The task has been challenging and highly rewarding. It has forced me to try … to express technical economics in language accessible to all. It has forced me also to stick my neck out in public…. Best of all, it has produced a stream of reactions from readers – sometimes flattering, sometimes abusive, but always instructive. I have learned in the process how easy it is to be misunderstood or – to say the same thing – how hard it is to be crystal clear. I have learned also how numerous are the perspectives from which any issue can be viewed. There is no such thing as a purely economic issue.”

In a 1973 Newsweek column, Friedman boldly made the assertion that ever since its charter was revised in 1962, the Food and Drug Administration had caused more harm than good.  The letters of response Newsweek received from its readers then gave Friedman the opportunity six weeks later to publish a follow-up column with one of his patented philosophical lessons about the nature of government bureaucracies

Let me show you, with some excerpts from both columns…


From Frustrating Drug Advancement, 8 Jan 1973

“Put yourself in the position of an FDA official charged with approving or disapproving a new drug. You can make two very different kinds of serious mistakes:

1. Approve a drug that turns out to have unanticipated side effects resulting in death or serious impairment of a sizable number of persons.

2. Refuse approval to a drug that is capable of saving many lives or relieving great distress and has no untoward side effects.

If you make the first mistake, the results will be emblazoned on the front pages of the newspapers. The finger of disapproval, perhaps even of disgrace, will point straight to you.

If you make the second mistake, who will know it? The pharmaceutical firm promoting the new drug…will be dismissed as greedy businessmen with hearts of stone…. The people whose lives might have been saved will not be around to protest. Their families will have no way of knowing that their loved ones lost their lives when they did only because of the [in]action of an unknown FDA official.

…The 1962 [Kefauver] amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act should be repealed. They are doing vastly more harm than good. To comply with them, FDA officials must condemn innocent people to death. In the present climate of opinion, this conclusion will seem shocking to most of you—better attack motherhood or even apple pie. Shocking it is—but that does not keep it from also being correct. Indeed, further studies may well justify the even more shocking conclusion that the FDA itself should be abolished.”

From Barking Cats, 19 Feb 1973

“In a recent column I pointed out that approval of drugs by the FDA delays and prevents the introduction of useful as well as harmful drugs. …I summarized a fascinating study by Prof. Sam Peltzman of UCLA of experience before and after 1962, when standards were stiffened. His study decisively confirmed the expectation that the bad effects would much outweigh the good.

The column evoked letters from a number of persons in pharmaceutical work offering tales of woe to confirm my allegation that the FDA was indeed “Frustrating Drug Advancement….” But most also said something like, “In contrast to your opinion, I do not believe that the FDA should be abolished, but I do believe that its power should be” changed in such and such a way—to quote from a typical letter.

I replied as follows: “What would you think of someone who said, ‘I would like to have a cat, provided it barked’? Yet your statement that you favor an FDA, provided it behaves as you believe desirable is precisely equivalent. The biological laws that specify the characteristics of cats are no more rigid than the political laws that specify the behavior of governmental agencies once they are established. The way the FDA now behaves, and the adverse consequences, are not an accident, not a result of some easily corrected human mistake, but a consequence of its constitution in precisely the same way that a meow is related to the constitution of a cat. As a natural scientist, you recognize that you cannot assign characteristics at will to chemical and biological entities, cannot demand that cats bark or water burn. Why do you suppose that the situation is different in the social sciences?”

The error of supposing that the behavior of social organisms can be shaped at will is widespread. It is the fundamental error of most so-called reformers. It explains why they so often believe that the fault lies in the man, not the “system,” that the way to solve problems is to “throw the rascals out” and put well-meaning people in charge. It explains why their reforms, when ostensibly achieved, so often go astray.

The harm done by the FDA does not result from defects in the men in charge—unless it be a defect to be human. Most are and have been able, devoted and public-spirited civil servants. What reformers so often fail to recognize is that social, political and economic pressures determine the behavior of the men supposedly in charge of a governmental agency to a far greater extent than they determine its behavior. No doubt there are exceptions, but they are exceedingly rare—about as rare as barking cats.”

If you wish to watch Milton Friedman make many of these points in an interview, here’s an 8-minute video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZL25NSLhEA

Illustration of Milton Friedman by Jocelyne Leger

(portrait credit)



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