A few days ago, Milton Friedman’s 95th year of life — a long and productive life — was . . . cut short. The 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics died, leaving the cause of liberty minus one of its greatest champions.
You’ve probably already read a dozen or so obituaries. Few economists deserve universal honoring at time of death, but Milton Friedman surely deserves to be one of those few. So it won’t hurt to read one encomium more.
Friedman was known for many things. For years, he wrote a thoughtful column for Newsweek. He was a teacher, and an adviser to presidents. His work on monetary theory earned him his Nobel, and his Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960, co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz, changed the way most scholars thought about boom and bust.
In the days of stagflation, his series of television documentaries, Free to Choose, provoked thought amongst thousands and thousands of viewers. A book with the same title, co-written with his wife Rose, made his ideas even more popular. Like an earlier work, Capitalism and Freedom, he advanced the idea that private property, free markets, the rule of law, and everyday individual freedom are closely tied, necessarily related.
His friends, family, students, colleagues — even his intellectual combatants — speak of him as more than this, of course. They remember the warm, funny, charming and genuinely good person. Even many of us who did not know him personally remain grateful to have caught a glimpse.
I shook his hand once. It was an honor. He was no ordinary economist. He was even more than a great economist. Friedman’s commitment to freedom was broad, not narrow — radical, not hesitant.
As Samuel Brittan noted in The Financial Times, Friedman spent more time in the ’60s arguing against America’s use of the military draft than against any other government policy. “In the realm of policy,” Friedman himself insisted, “I regard eliminating the draft as my most important accomplishment.” The excellence of today’s all-volunteer force shows the wisdom of Friedman’s policy prescription.
Freedom wasn’t just rhetoric to him; it wasn’t a loaded word to throw around almost meaninglessly in wartime. Freedom has consequences. Good ones. But not always pleasant for every ideologue. And he saw that freedom’s reach extends beyond helping just one sector of society. It helps us all.
Whereas most people may think of free-market economists as just another form of business lobbyist, Friedman proved this was not so.