Milton Friedman had a long career and made a number of important intellectual contributions to the world, most importantly in my view in improving our historical understanding of the Great Depression and the overall centrality of monetary issues to short-term economic fluctuations. He was also much more of an activist than your typical academic economist and in his activist role he was apparently prone from time to time to make really dumb quips such as the one reproduced above and celebrated today by the Heritage Foundation.
There is in fact no great mystery as to what would happen if the federal government ran a desert since the federal government is the major landowner in arid Southwestern states. Over 80 percent of Nevada is federally owned, along with 48 percent of Arizona, 42 percent of New Mexico, 57 percent of Utah, and 45.3 percent of California. There is no shortage of sand in these federally owned areas. In fact the landscapes are often quite beautiful. Now it’s not as though Friedman’s underlying point here about government ownership, lack of market prices, and allocative distortions is totally crazy. One could very plausibly argue that large-scale federal landownership in the Western United States has contributed to systematic shortages of water and to overgrazing in semi-arid grasslands. But to point that out would have challenged the self-conceptions of a lot of politically conservative Westerners, who imagine themselves hardy freedom-lovers but are in fact freeloaders on massive government subsidies to the rural economy.
Everyone has their weak moments, though, and my view is that important figures should be judged by their valuable contributions rather than the random dumb things they said. (Imannuel Kant once based on argument on a profoundly unfunny ethnic joke, but he’s still a great philosopher).
The telling and disturbing thing here is not so much Friedman’s rather obviously wrongheaded quip, but that this is the kind of thing the Heritage Foundation chooses to celebrate. If conservatives spent Friedman’s 101st birthday thinking hard about his views on quantitative easing, we might be getting somewhere as a country. Instead, they found a joke that flatters their preconceptions but makes no sense whatsoever.