Entrepreneurship, knowledge and employment

A history of Milton Friedman’s provocative “Capitalism and the Jews” (1972-1985)

Vallois Nicolas, CRIISEA, Université Picardie Jules Verne
Chassonnery-Zaïgouche Cléo, Centre Walras-Pareto, University of Lausanne.

In a 1972 letter to Ralph Harris, Friedman exposed briefly the subject of his forthcoming Presidential Lecture at the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) at the Montreux meeting in Switzerland (1972): "I have long been interested in, and have given a number of unwritten and unpublished lectures on, “Capitalism and the Jews”—the theme being that a) no people owe so much to capitalism; b) none have done so much to destroy it by writing and political actions." The speech circulated as a reprint (Friedman, 1972) and Capitalism and the Jews (hereafter C&J) was eventually published in three different forms in the 1980s (Friedman, 1984; 1985; 1988) Our objective is to analyze what role this essay played in Friedman’s thought. At first, its constant combination with anecdotes and jokes, especially during oral presentation, with the crude argument in favor of free market convey the sense of a rhetorical example: free market caused Jewish economic success , not government intervention; Hence, government should not intervene, especially concerning minorities. In fact, Friedman did some research to back up his claims and send numerous letters to ask advices and comments from friends and scholars with expertise on Jewish history and sociology. Beyond the classical theme of the religious origins of capitalism, Friedman’s short text combine an attempt to theorize the relation between markets and the economic status of minorities and an intellectual reaction to the 1960s decade of American liberalism. While part of the researched topic of antisemitism in the history of economic thought, our focus is rather on Friedman’s reflexive point of view with the objective to enlighten the way he articulates C&J to its vision of economic and political theory. Besides the several versions of C&J, our main sources are Friedman’s archives (essentially correspondence on C&J) and Friedman’s account on market and discrimination in other context.

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Keywords: Milton Friedman, History of economic thought, Jewish Question, Antisemitism

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