What would Milton Friedman do?

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There's No Shame in Joining the Trump Administration

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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In 1975, the economist Milton Friedman gave a series of lectures in Chile, as well as a small amount of advice to Augusto Pinochet, the country’s right-wing dictator. The advice was not on how to best crack down on political dissent, or where to hide the bodies of dissidents you were trying to disappear; it involved economic policy, and was advice that was similar to what he’d have given any government. Nonetheless, Friedman’s left-wing critics somewhat predictably used this brief interlude in a decades-long career to tar him and his ideas.

Whether Friedman should have advised Pinochet has long been a matter of cocktail-party debate in right-wing circles. Is it better for experts to send a message by withholding their expertise? Or if you have good advice to give, is it better to offer it to bad governments -- to benefit their people, even if incidentally the advice benefits the bad governments as well? The utilitarian calculus is, to say the least, unclear.

Well, on the right today, it's no longer just cocktail-party chatter. A lot of #NeverTrump wonks are likely to find themselves torn between being #NeverTrump and being wonks -- between their consciences and their callings.

I don't see a moral obligation for anyone to serve in a Trump administration. But people who opposed Donald Trump, on both the left and right, should commit right now to one thing: We will not tar good people for joining the Trump administration. Their motives will not be questioned, and if things do turn out as some of his critics fear, the people in his foreign and domestic policy apparatus will not suffer guilt by association. It is just too important that Trump have good advisers.

Trump will be the least policy-savvy president in history. He has built no ideological framework for future policies, much less a set of detailed proposals. He has few advisers, in part because so many of the usual contenders have come out against him.

Now he is going to have to have advisers. He is going to have to staff regulatory agencies. He is going to have to decide about policy priorities, and push legislation to advance them. If smart, competent people refuse to be a part of that, because they think it’s likely that they will suffer permanent stigma from having joined his team, then Trump's administration will still do all those things -- but it will do them poorly, and the nation will suffer.

The most vital area for Trump to staff with good people is his foreign policy and defense team. Those people will be making decisions in a short time frame, and often behind closed doors, with little public check on their thought process. But his domestic team matters too. These are the folks who will have to make thousands of decisions that affect our daily lives, from education to what companies are allowed to merge. If his cabinet is filled with inexperienced folks or narrow activists, those decisions can be disastrous. So if a good person enters the administration, don’t question his judgment or her character. Applaud.

During the Bush years there was a cottage industry of liberal economists who dinged conservatives like Greg Mankiw and Glenn Hubbard for saying complimentary things about policies that were, let us say, somewhat less than well-supported by economic science. Needless to say, such cheap shots could easily have been taken at folks like Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman during the Obama years. I didn’t take them.

Good economists in an administration cannot come out and say “This is bad policy,” for obvious reasons; their job is to have those conversations internally, and then support their boss’s decisions. That will also be the job of an adviser in a Trump administration, and we want good people in there making the good arguments.

When I tweeted a much shorter version of this thought this morning, I was beset by angry progressives talking about “Vichy” and “quislings” and saying that they wanted the Trump administration to fail as spectacularly as possible. While I understand the grief that those people are feeling, America, and the world, cannot afford this kind of thinking. There are things more important than political fights. One of them is making sure that the man in charge of the world’s biggest rich economy, and its biggest nuclear arsenal, has smart and sober-minded people around him. We all need to do everything we can to make sure that’s the case.

I don’t know if Trump will ask people I admire to serve in his cabinet; I don’t know that they will be willing to serve if he does. But whoever does serve will have my respect for their willingness to take on a difficult job; my most charitable assessment of their motives; and my fervent hope that they will prove to be able stewards.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net