Ideas Lying Around

Milton Friedman was a monster, but he wasn’t wrong about this.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readMay 27, 2023
A workbench with a pegboard behind it. from the pegboard hang an array of hand-tools.
btwashburn/CC BY 2.0

Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

-Milton Friedman, 1972

Milton Friedman was a crank.

The archduke of neoliberalism, chief conspirator to the Chicago School of Economics, cheerleader and enabler of genocidal maniacs like Augusto Pinochet, Friedman had one project: to roll back the widespread postwar prosperity produced by wildly popular programs like the New Deal and the Great Society.

At the moment when excluded groups — racialized people, queer people, women, colonized people — were demanding the benefits of these programs, Friedman and his clutch of Ayn-Rand-pilled economists wanted to throw the whole program in reverse, to go back to Gilded Age inequality and a system of hereditary servitude, where people born to the working class lived short lives of hard work, as did their children, and their children’s children.

This was an implausible project! The ruling class had long cherished their delusion that the forelock-tuggers they relied on actually enjoyed their servitude (this is a recurring folly, one that usually ends up with goggle-eyed startlement when the plebs start building guillotines on the lawn of one’s estate).

The post-war years — what the French call “Les Trente Glorieuses” or “the Thirty Glorious Years” — made it abundantly clear that no one wanted to go back to bending the knee to their social betters. Reinstating hereditary poverty was not a popular idea.

Not popular, that is, among normies. But for America’s richest plutocrats — and the temporarily embarrassed millionaires who fantasized about joining their ranks — Friedman’s project was a beautiful dream. Friedman and his acolytes were showered in cash, which allowed them to pursue this dream in the teeth of popular sentiment.

Friedman’s paymasters had their limits, though. To keep the money flowing, they demanded a theory of change that explained how the gains of working people could be stripped away. Same goes for Friedman’s most promising acolytes, whose belief in their cult leader’s vision required some reassurance that it wasn’t all a pipe-dream.

Friedman had a tried-and-true answer to these skeptical queries: someday, there will come a crisis. When the crisis comes, people will look for answers. The answers they choose will be those “ideas lying around” that have been promoted by the status quo’s loudest critics. In that moment, ideas can move from the fringe to the center.

Friedman was right.

In 1973, the OPEC nations turned off the world’s oil supply. Deprived of energy, the world’s economies were plunged into deep recession. While the cause of this shock was obvious —the oil rich nations didn’t keep it a secret or anything — what should be done about it wasn’t nearly so clear.

Enter Friedman: to people reeling in crisis, Friedman insisted that the missing oil was somehow the product of unionization, pollution controls, women’s lib, and the civil rights movement. Though this was transparent nonsense, akin to blaming witches for a crop failure, the crisis was so dislocating, and Friedman’s ideas had been lying around for so long, that they moved swiftly to the center.

Jimmy Carter adopted a handful of Friedman’s measures — neutering anti-trust law and kicking the supports out from under guaranteed pensions in favor of “market-based” 401(k) pensions that forced workers to gamble against sophisticated stock brokers for the chance of a dignified old age.

Next, Ronald Reagan swept into office, taking a flamethrower to those popular, effective New Deal and Great Society programs.

Forty years later, we are living in Friedman’s world, barrelling towards human extinction, with levels of inequality that would make the Sun King blush.

Satan took Milton Friedman to hell in 2006, but his ideas live on today.

We need new ideas lying around, because sure as shit, there will be crises. As Stein’s Law has it: anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop.

Last year, Rebecca Giblin and I published Chokepoint Capitalism, a book about the ways that entertainment and tech monopolies are squeezing creative workers. The first half of that book is a series of dissections of the eye-watering scams that these giant companies use to rip off musicians, reporters, writers, filmmakers, musicians and other creators.

We often hear from readers that after getting through those opening chapters, they experience an alarming, high-pitched keening that sounds like the precursor to a rage-induced aneurysm.

We always exhort those readers to stick with it, because in the second half of the book, we turn to solutions. Not individual solutions (“just buy your music from Bandcamp!”) — systemic solutions, like forming unions, changing state contract law, creating federal protections for interoperators, using job guarantees to pay for artistic creation, and breaking up the entertainment giants.

These proposals are developed in shovel-ready detail, designed to be “ideas lying around.” Because the arts are such an iniquitous, invidious, corrupt market that crises will surely erupt (and some are upon us already). When those crises arise, these well-developed ideas lying around can move from the fringe to the center.

Likewise with my new series of detailed proposals for the Electronic Frontier Foundation to end Big Tech’s predation upon the news. The ongoing mass-extinction event for journalism is a crisis, and any moments of stability are merely lulls between calamities. These proposals are intended to be “ideas lying around,” for the coming widening gyre of crises.

My next novel, The Lost Cause, is a tale of a semi-utopian society that has confronted the polycrisis that has spun out of the climate emergency. It’s not just a cracking yarn — it’s also a flythrough of a society where the emergency is confronted and the forces that gave rise to it are halted and thrown into reverse.

Developing these detailed proposals for a different world isn’t just building sandcastles in the sky. Rather, it’s the Friedman Method, used to devastating effect forty years ago.

While Friedman is my archnemesis, I love explaining how we can use his method to undo his evil. I like to imagine that every time I do, Friedman looks up from the spit he’s roasting on and gargles a curse around the red hot bar protruding from his jaws, to the great amusement of the demons turning the handle.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).