Paul Jacob

There was a great number of issues where Friedman demonstrated his radicalism and his good sense at the same time. And these issues must not be forgotten. As we extend our sympathy, condolences, and share our sorrow with Milton Friedman’s family and friends, we must not forget those issues.

I’ll name just two. (Friedman himself provided a lengthy list, and insisted it could never be complete.)

First, Friedman was a supporter of school choice.

It’s almost an understatement to put it like that. He nearly invented school choice. He first wrote about it back in the ’50s, when it seemed to most people almost lunatic. Now, the tide is turning. Options in elementary learning abound, today, though we are still afflicted with a burdensome and ill-run socialistic bureaucracy. We’ve a long way to go.

And he put his money where his mouth was (something one oddly doesn’t expect of economists). One of the things he did with his Swedish Bank (“Nobel”) award money was to establish the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which works to bring the benefits of choice to children everywhere.

Second, Friedman was an important early supporter of extending term limits to legislators. One can look at this in several ways.

Adding term limits is just one more necessary limit we place on government, to encourage human liberty. “The only way we are really going to change things is by changing the political structure,” Friedman said in 1991. “The most hopeful thing I see on that side is the great public pressure at the moment for term limits. That would be a truly fundamental change.”

Term limits are just pragmatic, ordinary horse sense, the kind of policy that someone who does good research would advocate. As the empirical-minded Friedman put it, “the evidence is clear: the longer people are in Congress, the more willing they are to vote government spending.”

Term limits are about education . . . the education of politicians. The environment of the modern state, and of its legislature, encourages certain kinds of actions, discourages others. Unlimited terms allow time for the bad lessons of the state to creep into the souls of all but a resolute few leaders, corrupting their dedication to freedom with the enticements of the age-old racket.

What racket? The one where good people start out trying to serve others, and end up serving themselves — at the expense of others. Whereas in markets, people looking out mainly for themselves are led “as if by an invisible hand” to serve others (as Adam Smith put it), in politics and government, the process suffers from a devastating reversal.

I remember Milton Friedman explaining this very idea (of the reverse invisible hand) in his Free to Choose television program. For this alone I remember him fondly. It’s an important political idea. It should never be forgotten.

Neither should his other political stances: against involuntary servitude in the military (or anywhere), for school choice for children (and their parents), for legislative term limits . . . in a phrase, for liberty.

All his life he promoted freedom.

A better epitaph could not be devised.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.