The Milton Friedman Prize Goes to a Hero

The 2008 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been awarded to Yon Goicoechea. Goicoechea was a key leader of the Venezuelan student movement that rallied the country to vote down Hugo Chavez’s referendum on a constitutional change that would have turned Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship. More on Yon here, as well as information on the gala May 15 dinner in New York at which the Prize will be presented.

It’s interesting to reflect on the diversity of the first four recipients of the Prize. The first Prize in 2002 went to Peter Bauer, presumably in recognition of his lifelong scholarship on development economics and the sources of wealth. (I say “presumably” because the Selection Committee doesn’t formally explain its decisions. But the announcement of the award referred to “his pioneering work in the field of development economics, where he stood virtually alone for many years as a critic of state-led development policy with its emphasis on central planning and external foreign aid.”)

The second Prize went to Hernando de Soto, an author of two books on economics but more importantly a tireless crusader and activist on behalf of poor people and their need for property rights.

The third Prize, in 2006, went to Mart Laar, the youngest prime minister in the history of Estonia, who led his country out of the Soviet Union and into the European mainstream. He slashed taxes and transfer payments, privatized state agencies, liberalized international trade, and created one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, dubbed the “Baltic Tiger.”

And this year the Prize goes to a young man who is not–not yet, at least–a scholar, an author, or an elected official. He’s just a law student who stood up when others wouldn’t and helped to create a movement that prevented a strongman from becoming a dictator.

I think the diversity of the recipients reflects the many ways in which liberty must be defended and advanced. People can play a role in the struggle for freedom as scholars, writers, activists, organizers, elected officials, and many other ways. Some may be surprised that a Prize named for a great scholar, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, might go to a political official or a student activist. But Milton Friedman was not just a world-class scholar. He was also a world-class communicator and someone who worked for liberty in issues ranging from monetary policy to conscription to drug prohibition to school choice. When he discussed the creation of the Prize with Cato president Ed Crane, he said that he didn’t want it to go just to great scholars. The Prize is awarded every other year “to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.” Friedman specifically cited the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square as someone who would qualify for the Prize by striking a blow for liberty. Yon Goicoechea not only stood in front of the tank, he stopped it. Milton Friedman would be proud.

I notice that the Prize has gone each time to someone almost a generation younger than the previous recipient. I’d guess that trend won’t continue, unless President Obama’s daughter convinces him to privatize Social Security.