George P. Shultz, who turns 100 years old on Sunday, has had a long and distinguished career in academia, business, and public office. He received a Ph.D. in economics from MIT and then taught for nearly 20 years at MIT and the University of Chicago, where he became friendly with Milton Friedman and George Stigler. In 1969 he joined President Richard Nixon’s administration as secretary of labor and went on to be director of the Office of Management and Budget and secretary of the treasury. In 1974 he joined the Bechtel Corporation in San Francisco.
In 1982 Shultz began the service for which he is most remembered, as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. As I’ve noted previously, things looked bleak for freedom in the 1970s. Communism controlled a third of the world and seemed to be expanding into countries such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Angola. Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying that he thought of the United States as Athens and the Soviet Union as Sparta. “The day of the U.S. is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as secretary of state is to negotiate the most acceptable second‐best position available,” he is supposed to have said. Kissinger denied the quotation, but another leading intellectual‐statesman, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stated a similar view openly in 1976, at the time of the American bicentennial: “Liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century; a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or particular places here and there, and may even serve well enough for special circumstance, but which has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going. Increasingly democracy is seen as an arrangement peculiar to a handful of North Atlantic countries.”
Reagan and Shultz didn’t see it that way. Reagan told the British Parliament in 1982 that “optimism is in order, because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not‐at‐all‐fragile flower.” Years later Shultz told an interviewer that he and his wife had visited the Soviet Union and concluded that its military might rested on an economy that was much weaker than many experts believed. (As did Cato Institute president Edward H. Crane when he visited there in 1981.) Within ten years the Soviet Union had collapsed, its Eastern European satellites were independent, and democracy was seen to be on the march again. The causes of the change are complex and debated: Was it Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s ideological defense of capitalism and democracy, the U.S. military buildup, the increasing failure of the Soviet economy, the information revolution, the unique figure of Mikhail Gorbachev? But certainly Reagan and Shultz left office with the world on the brink of a great victory for freedom and democracy. Kissinger and Moynihan’s pessimistic predictions seemed refuted.
After his work in government, Shultz moved to Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, where he remains an active Distinguished Fellow. Besides general commentary on foreign policy and economic issues, Shultz has spoken out repeatedly on the need for some form of decriminalization of drugs, an idea he might have gotten from Milton Friedman — or just from his own study of economics. In the video below he talks with a Cato interviewer about Cato’s conference “Ending the Global War on Drugs” (followed by an interview with former Mexican president Vicente Fox).
I remember when I first heard of George P. Shultz. It was the night of December 11, 1968. I was 15 and watching television with my parents. President‐elect Nixon held a televised event to unveil his new Cabinet all at once. Nixon made the point that he had chosen “a Cabinet not just of specialists but of generalists” and suggested that many of them could serve in various other Cabinet posts. And in my long‐ago recollection, the TV commentator then said “though one could hardly imagine Secretary of Labor George Shultz as secretary of state.” I guess Shultz showed him.
Happy birthday, Mr. Secretary.