Choking On Winning Exhaust

The Unsettling Legacy of 2020: Milton Friedman’s Externalities Return to Haunt Us


The year 2020 will forever be etched in the annals of history as a period of unprecedented challenges and upheavals. From the devastating global pandemic to widespread social unrest and economic volatility, it seemed as though the world was caught in a vortex of chaos. In this essay, we explore the notion that 2020 represents the culmination of Milton Friedman’s externalities coming home to roost, leaving society gasping for breath in the wake of mounting consequences.

Understanding Friedman’s Externalities:

Milton Friedman, a renowned economist and Nobel laureate, championed the concept of economic freedom and minimal government intervention in markets. He argued that free-market capitalism, driven by self-interest and competition, would produce the most efficient outcomes for society as a whole. However, Friedman’s philosophy also downplayed the potential negative externalities that could arise from unregulated markets.

Externalities, in economic terms, refer to the unintended costs or benefits imposed on third parties as a result of economic activity. These externalities can manifest in various forms, such as pollution, inequality, and market failures. Friedman’s laissez-faire approach emphasized individual freedoms and profit-maximization, often neglecting the long-term consequences and external costs associated with unbridled capitalism.

The Unforeseen Consequences of 2020:

As 2020 unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that the world was grappling with a plethora of externalities, many of which can be traced back to Friedman’s ideological influence. Let us explore three key areas where his ideas have contributed to the challenges faced in the year 2020:

  1. Economic Inequality:

Friedman’s staunch advocacy for limited government intervention inadvertently perpetuated widening wealth disparities. The pandemic exposed the stark inequality present in societies worldwide. The burden of the crisis disproportionately fell on the most vulnerable populations, who lacked access to healthcare, stable employment, and social safety nets. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots grew even wider, underscoring the flaws in a system that prioritizes profit over social well-being.

  1. Environmental Degradation:

Friedman’s emphasis on economic growth and profit maximization disregarded the environmental consequences of unregulated industries. The winning exhaust he referred to metaphorically represents the mounting pollution and ecological damage caused by industries chasing short-term gains. The 2020 wildfires ravaging Australia and the United States, the worsening climate change effects, and the loss of biodiversity all stand as testament to the externalities left unaddressed by Friedman’s philosophy.

  1. Fragility of Globalized Systems:

The interconnectedness of the global economy, another consequence of Friedman’s advocacy for liberalized trade and globalization, was laid bare in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread across borders, wreaking havoc on economies and healthcare systems worldwide. The overreliance on global supply chains, driven by the pursuit of cheap labor and reduced costs, left nations vulnerable to disruptions, illustrating the fragility of a system largely unconstrained by considerations of resilience and self-sufficiency.


The year 2020 can indeed be seen as the “mother of all Milton Friedman’s externalities coming home to roost.” The COVID-19 pandemic, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and the fragility of global systems all reflect the consequences of an economic framework that prioritized short-term gains and market efficiency over long-term sustainability and societal well-being.

The events of 2020 serve as a clarion call for a reevaluation of economic paradigms and the need for a more holistic approach to policymaking. It is imperative to strike a balance between economic freedom and responsibility, where the negative externalities of economic activities are taken into account.

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