Commentary

Celebrating Milton Friedman

For us, who lived in the communist world, Milton Friedman was the greatest champion of freedom, of limited and unobtrusive government and of free markets. Because of him I became a true believer in the unrestricted market economy.

Those are the words of Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Both Friedman’s writings and his landmark 1980 documentary series “Free to Choose” were smuggled into totalitarian communist states, inspiring a generation of future scholars, activists, and politicians.

July 31st, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Friedman’s birth. To commemorate that occasion, the Cato Institute has put together a video interview with Bob Chitester, producer of “Free to Choose,” recounting how it came to be, its impact, and what it was like working with Milton Friedman.

Aside from those who lived under communism, there is another group for whom Friedman was and is a colossal figure: advocates of educational freedom. At a time when state-run schooling had been the norm for nearly a century, and had long ceased to be questioned by America’s elites, Friedman offered a modest observation: there was no good reason for the government of a free society to actually run schools and many good reasons for it not to do so.

He made this case in his essay “On the Role of Government in Education,” first published in 1955. The idea had been floated by others, including Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, but Friedman eloquently and powerfully introduced it to the American policy debate. In so doing, he, more than any other individual, can be credited with giving rise to the modern school choice movement.

Not only did Friedman spark the creation of this movement, he helped to fan the flame of educational freedom, writing popular commentaries and book chapters, speaking with and encouraging activists, founding a leading school choice institution, and dedicating the entire sixth episode of “Free to Choose” to this subject.

I had the good fortune to speak and correspond with Milton occasionally, starting in the late 1990s, and what struck me most about him was his personal integrity. He once told me that he never said anything negative about a person in private that he would not be willing to say openly in that person’s presence. So far as I know, he never violated that principle. And while he staunchly defended his conclusions as long as he remained convinced of their correctness, he would amend them if the weight of evidence shifted.

Indeed the rigorous empiricism that Friedman applied in his scholarly work is generally regarded as one of his most influential contributions to the field of economics—for a long time controversial but eventually the norm, at least in principle. His view, published in the 1953 collection Essays in Positive Economics, was that

the ultimate test of the validity of a theory is… the ability to deduce facts that have not yet been observed, that are capable of being contradicted by observation, and that subsequent observation does not contradict. [p. 300]

Equally wise, though not yet as widely accepted, is the long time horizon against which Friedman measured policy outcomes. Economist and philosopher of science James R. Wible notes that Friedman’s greatest contribution “may be his constant reminder not to forget the long run consequences of short run policies.”

In the 1982 edition of his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman observed that scholars cannot single-handedly bring about change. Their real role, he wrote, is to “keep the lights on”—to remind us which policies work and which do not, and to show us how to advance our understanding even further. His own unfailing empiricism and concern for the long term remain valuable beacons today, both for advocates of educational freedom and the broader policy community.

Andrew Coulson directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.