Happy 100th Birthday, Milton Friedman!
My goodness, I miss Milton Friedman. Like so many classical liberals and lovers of the free market, I mostly miss his wisdom and the cogent way he argued for classical liberal principles. But I also miss his smile. I miss the serene, kind look he had when speaking with friend or foe. He radiated decency and gentleness, and that was one of his most admirable and endearing characteristics. He stayed calm, and kept that smile, in situations that would have driven many of us to far more tempestuous responses. It made him an extremely effective advocate for our principles.
Today, Stephen Moore expresses his own keen sense Friedman’s absence, describing him—and rightly so—as The Man Who Saved Capitalism.
It’s a tragedy that Milton Friedman—born 100 years ago on July 31—did not live long enough to combat the big-government ideas that have formed the core of Obamanomics. It’s perhaps more tragic that our current president, who attended the University of Chicago where Friedman taught for decades, never fell under the influence of the world’s greatest champion of the free market. Imagine how much better things would have turned out, for Mr. Obama and the country.
Friedman was a constant presence on these pages until his death in 2006 at age 94. If he could, he would surely be skewering today’s $5 trillion expansion of spending and debt to create growth—and exposing the confederacy of economic dunces urging more of it.
In the 1960s, Friedman famously explained that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” If the government spends a dollar, that dollar has to come from producers and workers in the private economy. There is no magical “multiplier effect” by taking from productive Peter and giving to unproductive Paul. As obvious as that insight seems, it keeps being put to the test. Obamanomics may be the most expensive failed experiment in free-lunch economics in American history.
Equally illogical is the superstition that government can create prosperity by having Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke print more dollars. In the very short term, Friedman proved, excess money fools people with an illusion of prosperity. But the market quickly catches on, and there is no boost in output, just higher prices.
Next to Ronald Reagan, in the second half of the 20th century there was no more influential voice for economic freedom world-wide than Milton Friedman. Small in stature but a giant intellect, he was the economist who saved capitalism by dismembering the ideas of central planning when most of academia was mesmerized by the creed of government as savior.
Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for 1976—at a time when almost all the previous prizes had gone to socialists. This marked the first sign of the intellectual comeback of free-market economics since the 1930s, when John Maynard Keynes hijacked the profession. Friedman’s 1971 book “A Monetary History of the United States,” written with Anna Schwartz (who died on June 21), was a masterpiece and changed the way we think about the role of money.
More influential than Friedman’s scholarly writings was his singular talent for communicating the virtues of the free market to a mass audience. His two best-selling books, “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) and “Free to Choose” (1980), are still wildly popular. His videos on YouTube on issues like the morality of capitalism are brilliant and timeless.
In the early 1990s, Friedman visited poverty-stricken Mexico City for a Cato Institute forum. I remember the swirling controversy ginned up by the media and Mexico’s intelligentsia: How dare this apostle of free-market economics be given a public forum to speak to Mexican citizens about his “outdated” ideas? Yet when Milton arrived in Mexico he received a hero’s welcome as thousands of business owners, students and citizen activists hungry for his message encircled him everywhere he went, much like crowds for a modern rock star.
Once in the early 1960s, Friedman wrote the then-U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, that he would be lecturing in India. By all means come, the witty but often wrong Galbraith replied: “I can think of nowhere your free-market ideas can do less harm than in India.” As fate would have it, India did begin to embrace Friedmanism in the 1990s, and the economy began to soar. China finally caught on too.
Of course, we may not post the entire piece, so you really should go read the rest. Yes, even the part about Occupiers wearing T-shirts which read: “Milton Friedman: Proud Father of Global Misery.” Seeing that, Friedman would probably have smiled—whereas I may have been given to a more . . . tempestuous reply
Milton, you are missed.
A few choice Friedman quotes:
Governments never learn. Only people learn.
I say thank God for government waste. If government is doing bad things, it’s only the waste that prevents the harm from being greater.
One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.
A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.
I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.
If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.
The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.
One of everyone’s favorites: Friedman leaves Phil Donahue rather speechless!
And Part 1 of the fantastic companion series to the book “Free to Choose”:
Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including AnyStreet.org (now a part of Western Free Press) and Liberatchik.com. He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to WesternFreePress.com.