Commentary

Rest in Peace, Milton Friedman

This article appeared in the Orange County Register, November 19, 2006.
Milton Friedman, perhaps the greatest economist of the 20th century, died Thursday at 94. Over his long life, he had the satisfaction of seeing the world turn in his direction.

Friedman was born in New York in 1912, at the end of a long period of peace and prosperity. The first half of his life witnessed a series of catastrophic setbacks to that cause: World War I, the Bolshevik coup d’etat in Russia, the rise of fascism and national socialism, World War II, communist domination of half the world. Happily, Friedman’s parents had left Eastern Europe, avoiding the cataclysms there.

But freedom was under challenge in their adopted home, as well. The federal income tax began in 1913. World War I ushered in government planning on an unprecedented scale. Then came Prohibition, the New Deal, Keynesian economics, and the pervasive belief that the federal government could solve any problem.

Then, after World War II, with the big-government mentality almost unchallenged in the United States, Milton Friedman began writing. He wrote first about technical economic issues, laying the groundwork for a later shift in U.S. monetary policy. Then in 1962, amidst the enthusiasm for John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, he published “Capitalism and Freedom,” proposing school vouchers to bring the benefits of competition to education, a flat-rate tax to make the income tax less burdensome, and floating exchange rates to improve international finance.

For the next 40 years, Friedman remained one of America’s most important advocates of individual freedom. He wrote a column for Newsweek, lectured around the world, and appeared on television, always arguing for the benefits of free markets and free societies. He was enlisted as an adviser to Republican presidents and candidates, yet rejected the label “conservative,” insisting that he was a liberal like Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, or a libertarian in modern terms.

Friedman’s advice was also sought around the world. Most famously, in the 1970s he advised the military government of Chile (for which he received years of abuse) and the communist government of China (which no one seemed to mind). Happily, both governments listened, and both have become “economic miracles.” Chile now has the most successful economy in Latin America, and China’s path along the “capitalist road” has made it more prosperous than anyone could have dreamed in 1976, the year that Mao Zedong died and Friedman won the Nobel Prize.

In 1980, Friedman broadened his audience further with the publication of a book, “Free to Choose,” and an accompanying PBS television series. Millions of people watched it and came to understand how markets work. One viewer, a young actor and future California governor named Arnold Schwarzenegger, said in 1994: “In Austria I noticed that people would worry about when they would get their pension. In America, they would worry if they were going to meet their potential. Friedman’s books explained to me how a dynamic capitalist system allows people to fulfill their dreams.”

That show appeared just after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain, and just before Ronald Reagan was elected president. Thatcher and Reagan represented a revolution that Milton Friedman had helped to create: a shift away from central planning and the welfare state and toward a renewed appreciation for entrepreneurship, free markets, and limited government.

And not just in England and the United States. The success of the free market in Chile influenced other Latin American countries to move away from their long tradition of interventionism. A decade after Reagan’s election, the Soviet empire collapsed, and many of the new leaders in eastern and central Europe turned out to be readers of … Milton Friedman.

Estonia quickly became a post-Soviet success story. When its young prime minister Mart Laar visited Washington, he was asked where he got the idea for his market-based reforms. “We read Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek,” Laar replied. Another successful reformer, Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus, was similarly described as a “Friedmanite with a staff of Hayekians.”

Friedman fought coercion in all its forms. He was the intellectual father of the all-volunteer army, persuading a young congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, to become a leader in the effort to end the draft. And he was an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs, which, he argued, violates individual rights and fosters crime and corruption.

“My central theme in public advocacy,” Friedman once said, “has been the promotion of human freedom.”

Today, we no longer hear his voice. But amid growing school choice programs in Ohio, Arizona, and beyond, and economic liberalization the world over, it’s hard not to see his work.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute, and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.