A confession: It took me quite a while to see anything much to this Milton Friedman fellow. Back in 1980, his capitalist manifesto, "Free to Choose," struck me as only a slightly updated and upgraded version of Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative," a popular political tract the senator had put his name to 20 years before. Both little books seemed so simple, their prose so smooth and unchallenging, that I suspected they'd been ghostwritten by some slick pro. (Goldwater's was.)
What I'd failed to understand was the distinction between simplistic and simple. Dr. Friedman's ideas were the distillation of years of economic scholarship before and during his reign at the University of Chicago. What would become known as the Chicago School of economics would first rival and then surpass the all too conventional Keynesian wisdom that Milton Friedman would dethrone. His popular writing was so clear and simple because it was based on so much research.
While more conventional economists were proposing future programs, young Friedman realized he was staring at a great experiment that had already been conducted-the past-and he set out to organize and present its results. By the time he finished, he not only had toppled John Maynard Keynes, who was seldom if ever simple, but replaced him as the guiding intellectual force of modern economics.
Milton Friedman did it by discovering not new but old ideas and old thinkers. For example, the importance of money to economics (talk about something too obvious for the sophisticates to grasp!) and good old Adam Smith. The key to Milton Friedman's genius as an economist-well, one of the keys-was that he was also an historian.
Dr. Friedman's "Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960," which he co-wrote with Anna Jacobson Schwartz in 1963, was not exactly a rip-roaring best-seller. But looking back, which Milton Friedman was very good at it, that study would be the basis of his monetarist theories about the future, and they proved uncannily accurate. They allowed him to see the stagflation of the Nixon and Carter years coming long before it even had a name, and to prescribe a remedy: a stable money supply and a free market.
The fashionable experts then in charge of the American economy (and who were making a muck of it) dismissed Milton Friedman's ideas as hopelessly antiquated. Imagine: Someone who still believed in the free market in the Age of Keynes!