This is a difficult question as the answer requires one to properly understand Friedman’s stance in F53 (what he thought about methodology) and to reconstruct the actual methodology underlying his applied economics (what kind of methodology he actually followed). It is not about reading an unnatural harmony into his oeuvre–suggesting a methodology in F53 he did not actually follow is an option.
These days time and again I find myself in the delightful position of thinking a lot about Friedman’s methodology as one of my students writes her thesis for BA on Friedman’s monetary econonomics and the FED’s Friedmanian experiment. My student is not frightened by digging deep in methodology, so during our long concersations we try to approach the problem from different directions. I do love these chats. She is very talented and ambitious and has higher learning (and, yes) reading abilities. I am especially grateful to her for keeping the topic alive: she has already recognized that a critique against Friedman can best be done on a methodological ground. The other day we talked about how important or ‘representative’ Friedman’s positivist methodology is in terms of his lifework.
It is well-known that F53 can be read in various ways. Even though it is the instrumentalist reading that dominates the literature, Uskali Mäki’s efforts to provide an alternative, realist rendition underlines the fact that F53 is a far cry from a homogeneous text. Mäki was unable to persuade the profession of the plausibility of his readlist reading, though his point was effective enough to show that F53, to say the least, is quite enigmatic. In other words, there are parts in the text that can easily be read in a realist way, whilst there are others that invalidate this reading–these conflicting parts can hardly be reconciled.
So what if we cut the text into pieces to create a body that can rightly be considered as realist? As a matter of fact, it was Mäki’s strategy: to ‘reconstruct’ F53 as a realist manifesto. However, we can do so even without thinking that such a strategy can lead to a proper and coherent interpretation. Cutting the text into parts can help us to reveal the inner conflicts in the text.
Mäki is right to think that some parts (or even the vast majority) of the text can be conciliated with a realist position, whilst there are parts that cannot. At the bottom-line, Friedman did not go farther than saying that theoretical models are descriptively unrealistic and descriptive performance is a wrong basis for theory choice. This is true–all the more so as science from the time of Galileo (at least) has followed this principle. It is beside the point now, but I do think that this was the basic message that made F53 so popular and acceptable and easily digestible. However, there is a problem Friedman disregards: there may be other requirements theoretical assumptions are to meet. There are realist assumptions that are descriptively false, whilst some other descriptively false assumptions have nothing to do with reality. His point is shown in his example of utility-maximizing leaves: this is supposed to be an as-if assumption. We know that leaves are not rational maximizers, whilst their ‘behaviour’ at a phenomenal level might be well described with this assumption.
We could say that Friedman missed the point when talking about rational leaves–I bet this was what Mäki had in mind. So it may be possible that by throwing out this example we can get a homogeneous text for F53. This option is something to consider, whilst at this point Friedman’s oeuvre cuts in. Is it sure that such purely unrealistic and fictitious assumptions are unprecedented in his works? I don’t think so–suffice it to refer to his Phillips-papers (his presidential address and his Nobel lecture) where he cooked up some confusing assumptions only to get to the outcomes he set in advance.
So should we leave his parable on rational leaves out of the reconstruction? I don’t think so. In my view, such an ommission would be justified only if Friedman had never applied such cooked-up assumptions–but he did! Thus such assumptions having nothing to with reality beyond the phenomenal level seem to be effective parts of his theorizing habit. At the same time, far be it for me to say that Friedman was a causal instrumentalist–in other words, that he never thought in causal terms. For instance, he really conceived the money supply as a (proximate) cause of large-scale fluctuations.
So what about Friedman’s methodology and his F53? I wouldn’t say he was an ardent antirealist or instrumentalist, but he hed no problems using antirealist assumptions. With no better labels at hand, this is the attitude of ‘anything goes’…