Honoring freedom and Friedman

Posted: Nov 19, 2006 12:00 AM

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.

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.