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 quote from 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)

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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7 Responses to 1973 Classic: Milton Friedman’s “Barking Cats”

  1. Milton Friedman had the gift of the born teacher: the ability to explain complicated phenomena in a way that the average man could understand. His death was a sad day for all who, like us, are not experts in the field of economic science.


    • David, what books or other material (print/audio/video) from Friedman have you consumed? I’ve read Free to Choose, and am wondering which of his books I should plan to read next.

      Also, please point me to one of your articles where you describe your background. Where/how did you come by your political and economic knowledge? If you haven’t written about that, please consider it.

      – Jeff


  2. Hi Jeff,

    I admit, I have not read as much Friedman as I should have before making a bold statement such as the one above.

    As to where I received my political and economic knowledge, I have read several different authors (economists and politicians) who express in layman’s terms complex economic and political phenomena. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are two examples of the economists I have read behind.

    I have not written such an article as you have mentioned, but I appreciate the suggestion and will definitely take it under advisement. Sounds like a good topic on which to write! I don’t pretend to have extensive formal education on the political science side of the spectrum, because I don’t. But I also believe that much of what passes for political science obfuscates the simple truths upon which this republican form of government was founded.

    As always, thanks for your courteous and thought-provoking comments!


    • David, I agree with every word of your original comment. I wasn’t calling you out on your credentials to make a bold statement that’s factual.

      I don’t pretend to be formally educated in political science either, and there, too, I wasn’t calling you out. I’m an electrical engineer with a mere bachelor’s degree. However I would assert that a real-life immersion in everyday politics and economics over a period of decades is a far better political science education than that offerred by liberal arts universities, taught from textbooks and professors’ tracts. The poly sci departments of 90% of the higher ed institutions are ideologically OWNED by the progressive elitists, and are used for indoctrination of America’s youth into the leftist world vision. (That’s my embellishment of your point about political science obfuscation.)

      I’m nearly 51. My first vote helped elect Reagan to his first term. If your photo is current, you look to be in your early 30s. I’m guessing your first presidential vote (one way or the other) helped settle Clinton’s bid for re-election or perhaps GWB’s bid for his first term. So I was simply curious how you came to possess such a well-rounded sense of practical politics and especially economics relatively early in your life.

      – Jeff


  3. Hello again Jeff,

    Thanks very much for clarifying. I appreciate your courteous and encouraging words.

    I completely agree with you on the statement you make about the political science departments of the institutions of higher education in this country. 90% sounds a tad low to me, honestly. 😉

    My profile picture is current, although you guessed a little high on the age. No worries; people often do. I will be 24 this year. Since your assertion about immersion in real-life politics goes hand-in-hand with my own predisposition toward alternative education (e.g., non-public solutions), you may depend on my agreeing with you. Also, the example of men like Ronald Reagan, Thomas Sowell, breitbart.com founder Andrew Breitbart (self-described as “a Reagan conservative” with libertarian sympathies), and many others who have “crossed the political divide,” confirms your statement far more resoundingly than mere words ever could. What was it that brought these men over to the conservative viewpoint/ideology? Real-life experience…there’s something to that.

    My first chance at voting was in 2008, so I was not blessed to vote for President George W. Bush in either term. Though I don’t agree with the man’s every policy, that saddens me. (The truth is, I’ve read the one-volume summation of Reagan’s diaries by Douglas Brinkley, and I wish I’d been born in time to vote for a real statesman.) Although I do not doubt Senator McCain’s sincerity for a moment, I did not agree entirely with his methodology or ideology; indeed, far less than with GWB. I digress.

    Your kindness continues with your assessment of my knowledge of practical politics and economics. I can only attribute it to one thing: I was blessed beyond anything I deserved, in that I was raised in the home of a conservative. I also received the first eighteen years of my education at home. My father and mother have always encouraged the inquirer in me and pushed me to search things out for myself. In the beginning, they selectively introduced me to writings of those with whom they agreed. But it was more than that: they instilled in me early the value of looking at any assertion and thinking critically about the same. As I grew older, they encouraged me to read authors on both sides of issues, to question the norm, challenge the status quo, and seek the truth. In short, they strove to educate me in the rules of classical, objective logic and reasoning.

    Thank you again for the encouragement. It is my hope and prayer that many young people in my generation will begin to see the need to heed the wisdom of people of yours and my father’s generation. It is also my fear that many will choose rather to imbibe the heady wine of the intelligentsia.

    Forgive me; I’ve written you another book. In closing, I’d also like to thank you for doing what you are with this site. An ordinary fellow seeking to educate other ordinary fellows on politics is not only a wonderful idea, but–I firmly believe–what our Founding Fathers had in mind. Many quotes could sum up this principle, but I just heard a portion of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, and it is particularly apropos. Granted, in the paragraph quoted, he is speaking specifically about the military-industrial complex, but I think I do no damage to his intent to say that the statement he makes about a knowledgeable citizenry has significantly broader ramifications:

    “…The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    Again, thank you for encouraging political self-education, political common sense, and especially political debate–spirited, courteous, informative, and profitable debate. Long may it continue–’tis an American tradition!


  4. Reblogged this on Utopia – you are standing in it! and commented:
    Great discussion by Milton Friedman of the challenges of being a public intellectual. He also get stuck into the Food and Drug Administration.


  5. Pingback: 12/22/2017: 1973 Classic: Milton Friedman’s “Barking Cats” Posted on January 5, 2013by Necessary and Proper | The Daily Hatch

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