Alexander's Column

Milton Friedman

By Mark Alexander · Nov. 17, 2006

In the near-half century of the Cold War, the fields of battle took many forms. There were the diplomatic battlefields, such as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding “we will bury you” tirade before the United Nations, and U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s brilliant demonstration of the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba before that same body. There were the cultural battlefields, where the likes of Jane Fonda and John Kerry demonstrated their contempt for the cause of freedom, even going so far as to meet with Communist North Vietnamese officials in wartime, in Hanoi and Paris, respectively. There were also the “hot” battlefields of the Cold War – from Korea to Central Africa and from Vietnam to Central America, to name a few.

Then there was the battlefield of ideas. Here, Milton Friedman stood as a giant among men, defending the cause of liberty against the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism, Communism and Socialism.

Milton Friedman, American patriot, “Chicago School” economist, Nobel Laureate and advisor to presidents, died yesterday at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife, fellow economist and frequent co-author Rose, and their son David, also a Chicago School economist. With Dr. Friedman’s passing, the free world loses one of its greatest-ever intellectual warriors.

Friedman is, of course, best known for his articulation of and apologia for free-market economics – a system he considered a fundamental necessity of man’s existence as a free, self-determinative individual. No lightweight in his field, these ideas won Friedman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976. Working in the shadow of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, at a time when the country was wrestling with its soul, Friedman’s reinvigoration of free-market ideals was a godsend.

At a time when that half of the world which subsisted behind the Iron Curtain longed to be free, America itself seemed content to follow what fellow economist Friedrich von Hayek called “The Road to Serfdom.” America’s apparent willingness to become a modern welfare state on the model of her European counterparts, complete with endless entitlements and soft socialism, was just that – slavery to the state.

Rather, as the title of one of Friedman’s classic works states, Americans must be “Free to Choose,” for “Capitalism and Freedom” are inextricably bound. “Many people want the government to protect the consumer,” Friedman said. “A much more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.”

Speaking of the need for free markets for freedom, Friedman argued that “the tide of ideas isn’t local. It’s international; it’s worldwide.” Indeed, his influence has been felt worldwide. Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” provided economic leadership in countries around the globe: Thatcher’s Great Britain, Chile, the Czech Republic, Portugal, South Korea and Spain, to name a few. By enacting Friedman’s free-market ideas – hammering inflation, reducing trade barriers, inducing foreign investment and cutting public spending – these economies went from dormancy to dynamism within a matter of years.

Let’s not forget, of course, Friedman’s prescient advocacy for then-unheard-of ideas like the flat tax, market deregulation and school choice. Then there’s the “Friedman Test,” a statistical masterpiece that still reverberates in the world of economic theory.

According to Martin Anderson, chief domestic-policy advisor to Ronald Reagan, Friedman’s footprint on the history of ideas is sizeable. “If you step back and look at all the sweeping political and economic changes in the United States and even in other countries, a lot of people have had an important effect,” says Anderson, “but if you had to name one person who had the most impact, it’s Milton Friedman.”

Before the influence of free-market ideas had reached so far, Friedman joined von Hayek, his University of Chicago colleague, in the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. Comprising a handful of woefully outnumbered but likeminded individuals, the Society became known as a “kind of Comintern for the free-market.” In 1967, the spring season of the American welfare state, Friedman’s election as president of the American Economic Association stood in stark contrast.

In 1980, Friedman found a broader venue for his ideas, with the monumental debut of his “Free to Choose” series on PBS, where, as the Heritage Foundation’s Ed Feulner puts it, he made “a compelling case to millions of viewers on the essential connection between capitalism and human freedom.” In 1988 Ronald Reagan awarded Dr. Friedman the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is hard to imagine a more deserving recipient.

Renowned by friends and enemies alike as an indefatigable debater, Friedman was not without his lighter side. When Richard Nixon famously remarked, “We are all Keynesians now,” Friedman wrote to friend and Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith: “You must be as chagrined as I am to have Nixon for your disciple.”

On another occasion, when hiring an administrative assistant concerned over her lack of training in economics, Friedman didn’t miss a beat: “You don’t have to worry about not knowing anything about economics. There are many people who studied economics for years and don’t know anything about economics. Stick with me and you’ll learn the correct way.”

That good-spiritedness, however, never kept Friedman from making his point with powerful effect. When Nixon enacted wage-and-price controls in 1971, Friedman penned a scathing assessment in the opinion pages of the New York Times: “The controls are deeply and inherently immoral. By substituting the rule of men for the rule of law and for voluntary cooperation in the marketplace, the controls threaten the very foundations of a free society. By encouraging men to spy and report on one another, by making it in the private interest of large numbers of citizens to evade controls, and by making actions illegal that are in the public interest, the controls undermine individual morality.”

It is worth noting that Friedman’s 1976 Nobel Prize – the pinnacle of his life’s work – fell on the 200th anniversary of both Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” This is altogether fitting, since Milton Friedman embodied the inextricable link between personal liberty and economic liberty that these two seminal works have come to represent. As we say a fond farewell to one of the free world’s great champions, let us hope that America continues to be blessed with men of such moral and intellectual courage.