Milton Friedman, who died in November at the age of 94, was the last century’s most energetic and effective advocate of liberty. He was a groundbreaking giant as a technical economist, winning a Nobel Prize in 1976. He was similarly successful as an advocate of libertarian ideas in popular journalism, beginning with his 1962 classic Capitalism and Freedom, continuing as a Newsweek columnist from 1966 to 1984, and culminating in 1980’s best-selling book and accompanying TV series, Free to Choose. (Both books were written with his wife, Rose Friedman.)
Not merely an important intellectual and a persuasive pundit, Friedman was directly responsible for two enormous improvements in Americans’ everyday lives. Because of his work with the Nixon-era Gates Commission, which recommended the abolition of conscription, you can thank Friedman for eliminating the military draft. And because of his work on monetary theory, which convinced the Federal Reserve to keep a tighter rein on the growth of the money supply, you can thank him for the relatively low price inflation of the last two decades. In more recent years, he devoted his energies to two other libertarian causes, school choice and ending the prohibition of drugs. If those battles have not yet been won, we are much closer to victory than we would be without Friedman’s tireless advocacy.
Milton Friedman was also, to our great pleasure and benefit, a longtime contributor to Reason. From our January 1974 issue, where he enthusiastically agreed to be part of a registry of libertarian-friendly academics compiled by the early Reason staff, to his hour on the phone with me in late August 2006 to discuss Alan Greenspan’s record as chairman of the Federal Reserve and the prospects for his successor, Ben Bernanke, Friedman was always a generous friend to this magazine. He told me, during our interview published in the June 1995 issue, “I think that Reason magazine has been remarkably good; it has been very effective.” Not nearly as effective as he.
Here is a sampling of what Friedman offered in his many interviews and articles in Reason. It is meant to give a wide-angle picture of his thoughts—often iconoclastic and combative, always lucid and rooted in his belief that we should all be free to choose what we buy, what we sell, what we ingest, what we produce, how we interact with others, how we educate our children, and, in general, how we live.
From “An Interview With Milton Friedman,” December 1974, conducted by Tibor Machan, Joe Cobb, and Ralph Raico:
The case for free enterprise, for competition, is that it’s the only system that will keep the capitalists from having too much power. There’s the old saying, “If you want to catch a thief, set a thief to catch him.” The virtue of free enterprise capitalism is that it sets one businessman against another and it’s a most effective device for control.
I start…from a belief in individual freedom and that derives fundamentally from a belief in the limitations of our knowledge, from a belief…that nobody can be sure that what he believes is right, is really right.…I’m an imperfect human being who cannot be certain of anything, so what position…involved the least intolerance on my part?…The most attractive position…is putting individual freedom first.
There’s a great deal of basis for believing that a free society is fundamentally unstable—we may regret this but we’ve got to face up to the facts.…I think it’s the utmost of naiveté to suppose that a free society is somehow the natural order of things.
It’s fortunate that the capitalist society is more productive, because if it were not it would never be tolerated. The bias against it is so great that…it’s got to have a five-to-one advantage in order to survive.
I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong, pass a law and do something about it.
I do believe that every individual should be free to own, buy, and sell gold. If under those circumstances a private gold standard emerged, fine—although I make a scientific prediction that it’s very unlikely. But I think those people who say they believe in a gold standard are fundamentally being very anti-libertarian because what they mean by a gold standard is a governmentally fixed price for gold.
At one time I thought a strong argument could be made for compulsory schooling because of the harm which the failure to school your child does to other people.…But the work which Ed West and others have done on the actual development of schools makes it abundantly clear that in the absence of compulsory schooling there would nonetheless be a very high degree of literacy—that self-interest would be sufficient to yield a degree of schooling which would satisfy the social need for a literate society. Consequently, I am no longer in favor of compulsory schooling.
The two chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals on the one hand and businessmen on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others.…He thinks…there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities.…The businessmen are just the opposite—every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always the special case. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing…
The argument has always been made that the trouble with capitalism is that it’s materialistic, while collectivism can afford to pay attention to the nonmaterial. But the experience has been the opposite. There are no societies that have emphasized the purely material requisites of well-being as much as the collectivist…it is in the free societies that there has been a far greater development of the nonmaterial, spiritual, artistic aspects of well-being.
I don’t think that a revolutionary, once-and-for-all approach [to achieving political liberty] will succeed.…I think the odds are that a free society is on the way out but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for it, or that sulking in our tents explaining to one another how nice it would be if we could only wipe the slate clean and get our way is an effective means of fighting for a free society.