Remembering Milton Friedman

Friedman was always his own man

July 15, 2012

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TORONTO, ON, Jul 15, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Milton Friedman would have been 100 this month. Although physically tiny, his professional stature was large. When he died in 2006, the Economist described him as the ‘most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century.’

A Nobel Prize winner in 1976, Friedman was a maverick for much of his career. Within the economics profession, he led the challenge to the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy, dismantled the highly touted Phillips Curve, and reintroduced money supply considerations to the mainstream of economic thought.

He was also that rare mid-20th century bird – an intellectual who was perceived as being unabashedly conservative. Indeed, an essayist for Time magazine claimed that, apart from William F. Buckley and ‘perhaps Milton Friedman,’ there were simply no conservative intellectuals!

(In truth, Friedman was a libertarian rather than a conservative. But back then, libertarians were too exotic a breed to merit serious consideration.)

Naturally, there was a steady stream of writing, including contributions to scholarly journals, a Newsweek column, and a number of books. For the general public, two vied for most notable status: 1962’s Capitalism and Freedom and 1980’s Free to Choose – the latter written in collaboration with his economist wife Rose and conceived as a companion piece to their PBS television series.

Although Free to Choose was a popular bestseller, the earlier Capitalism and Freedom had more long-term influence. It was one of those sleeper successes. Initially ignored by the media, it still managed to sell 400,000 copies by 1980, and remains in print to this day.

While it draws on Friedman’s vast knowledge of economics, Capitalism and Freedom isn’t an academic text. Nor is it difficult to read. Quite the contrary.

At a little over 200 pages, it’s a lucid exposition of a libertarian worldview. And that worldview puts economic freedom at its centre.

In the telling, the value of economic freedom extends beyond philosophical principle and practical considerations of efficiency. It’s also linked to political freedom.

Ever the iconoclast, Friedman starts the book by dissecting JFK’s famous exhortation, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’ At the time, this was generally perceived as a statement of the highest idealism. But to Friedman, it implies an undesirable master/servant relationship between government and citizen.

In its place, he suggests an alternative formulation: ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?’ While it doesn’t have the rhetorical felicity of JFK’s wordsmith, it does encapsulate the libertarian distinction.

Friedman goes on to expound on the relationship between economic and political freedom, including a reference to the Hollywood Ten – the group of screenwriters and directors who got into trouble by refusing to answer a congressional committee’s questions on their Communist Party associations. Despite being blacklisted, many found work under pseudonyms although the industry knew who they were.

As Friedman notes, they would have had a tougher time in a world where private industry had been supplanted by public ownership. If you’re in trouble with the government, they’re not going to hire you. And if there’s no private sector, where then are you going to work?

While this insight may seem self-evident now, it wasn’t then. Many intellectuals favoured public ownership, including public ownership of the media, while simultaneously decrying what they viewed as government persecution of ‘dissenters’ like the Hollywood Ten. One wonders who they thought would have political control over these public entities!

Through the decades, Friedman’s fertile mind covered a lot of bases. Among other things, he championed a negative income tax as a solution for poverty, educational vouchers to give parents greater choice in the education of their children, ending the peacetime military draft to get rid of what he called ‘an army of slaves,’ and abolishing rent controls.

And although he was happy to endorse political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he also supported positions that you wouldn’t normally associate with conservatism. For instance, he was in favour of drug legalization and opposed to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

At the end of the day, Milton Friedman was always his own man.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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