Milton Friedman’s responses in 1973 and 1998 to the creation of the ‘Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession’

In 1971, the American Economic Association (AEA) created the “Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP)” as a standing committee charged with “promoting the careers and monitoring the progress of women economists in academia, government agencies and elsewhere.” Several years later in 1973, Carolyn Shaw Bell, then the chair of CSWEP invited Milton Friedman to “present a review of our work” at a session of the AEA annual meetings in December 1973 and enclosed a copy of the committee’s “findings, conclusions, and recommendations.”

In a 1998 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (“A Comment on CSWEP“) Milton Friedman recalled that invitation and provided both his 1973 response and an updated 1998 response. Here’s part of Friedman’s 1973 response which he provided in writing at the time because he was out of the country for the AEA meetings that year:

I welcome the opportunity to comment on your report. Needless to say, I sympathize with the objective of equal treatment of all people whether male, female, black or white, Jewish or non-Jewish. I sympathize very much with the objective of eliminating extraneous considerations from any judgment of ability or performance potential. At the same time, I regret very much the passage of the resolutions by the Association at its meeting in 1971 that led to the set-up of your committee and I believe your report is not one that people who believe in equal treatment can accept. Despite all the protestations to the contrary, your report calls for discrimination but discrimination in favor of, rather than against, a particular group–what has come to be called reverse discrimination. I have never believed in reverse discrimination whether for women or for Jews or for blacks.

In addition, your report is concerned so much with the single factor, and this goes as well for the Association’s resolution, that it neglects other factors and as a result makes statements that are patently unacceptable. Let me give just one example of this: that “every economics department shall actively encourage qualified women graduate students without regard to age, marital or family status.” Consider that with respect to males for a moment. Should we really, given that we have the capacity for handling only a limited number of graduate students at any one time, encourage men age 65 to enter graduate study on a par with young men age 20? Surely education and training in advanced economics is a capital investment and is justified only if it can be expected that the yield from it will repay the cost.

This would not be relevant if the individual getting the training were to be paying the full cost of his training. In that case, he would bear the cost of the waste of schooling. However, that is clearly very far from the fact. Individuals trained do not bear the full cost of their training. We have limited funds with which to subsidize such training; it is appropriate to use those funds in such a way as to maximize the yield for the purposes for which the funds were made available. In the main, those funds were made available to promote a discipline rather than to promote the objectives of particular groups. If some donor wishes to give us funds to be used solely for women, I have no objection to our using them for that. But with respect to the general purpose funds that we have, it seems to me that it is relevant to take into account the age of men or women, the marital or family status of men or women, and the sex of potential applicants insofar as that affects the likely yield from the investment in their training. Clearly, these comments apply to much of the rest of your report…

Here are Friedman’s comments from 1998:

As of today, a quarter of a century later, the circumstances have changed drastically. Partly because of the activities of CSWEP and its many sister organizations, I would not today write, as I did then, “I have no doubt that there has been discrimination against women.” Rather, the pendulum has probably swung too far so that men are the ones currently being discriminated against. However, the principles stated in my letter apply just as much to the new situation as to the old. “Complete objectivity and color-blindness” still seem to me the right goal, not, as I wrote in a subsequent letter to Professor Bell, letting “the preferences or values or tastes or beliefs of some people dominate the preferences or values or tastes or beliefs of other people.”

MP: In today’s upside-down world isn’t the concept of “complete objectivity and color-blindness” now considered to be discriminatory and possibly racist and sexist? Reminds me of Thomas Sowell’s observation that “When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.”

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