Not too long ago, I wrote a column about Milton Friedman's position on the drug war (he wants to end it). A conservative reader, in a huff about the Nobel-winning economist's libertarian side being so prominently aired, wrote to tell me that political scientist Harry Jaffa was far more important than Friedman.
No offense to Jaffa or his fans, but if Friedman hadn't come around the mountain when he did, Jaffa would be unemployed.
Friedman, who turns 90 on July 31, was recently toasted by President Bush in honor of his life's achievements. This "hero of freedom," said the president, "has used a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision: the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions… All of us owe a tremendous debt to this man's towering intellect and his devotion to liberty."
Unfortunately, fellows like my rankled conservative reader are quick to display something else: ignorance and ingratitude.
If you're looking for the father of the 20th century libertarian renaissance, start your paternity tests with Uncle Milty. Certainly fingers should point in the direction of Mises, Hayek, and other such luminaries. Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand were both making sizeable waves as Friedman was wading into the pool. But Friedman really deserves the brass ring for creating both academic and popular support for the idea of reducing government controls and increasing individual freedom.
Mises and Hayek got the ball rolling after World War II, but Keynes and his cronies had all the loot and influence. The libertarian economic position was muffled and marginalized. Something had to shake it loose. That something was Friedman, who helped create a massively influential free-market academic network based at the University of Chicago.
In 1962 Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, a book that laid the foundation for his popular works to follow. In books such as Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose, his Newsweek columns, and various TV documentaries, Friedman effectively argued against Social Security, government monopoly control of education and the post office, military conscription, drug prohibition, subsidies for farming and housing, rent controls, high taxation, tariffs, occupational licensing, reckless government spending, Keynesian inflationary meddling, and the reams of regulatory red tape so adored by bureaucrats and statist desk jockeys.
"It is testimony to Milton Friedman's tireless, good-natured efforts and the vigor of his arguments that economic ideas once regarded as hopelessly out of date are now being seriously discussed again," said Playboy when it interviewed him in 1973 (one of the reasons why the old "I read Playboy for the articles" protest carried any weight). Nearly 30 years on, these ideas are more than seriously discussed-they now carry the day.
Friedman was instrumental in sacking military conscription and getting a rein on marginal tax rates. His basic monetary position was proven right in the '70s when stagflation put the lie to Keynes' theory and had folks looking to wooden nickels as a safe haven for their money. Friedman's case for drug legalization is increasingly popular as the culture shifts to understand that political, economic, and civil liberties are indivisible. And his school voucher evangelizing, started almost 50 years ago, has even won converts on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Give what he has achieved, it's hard to overstate the importance of Milton Friedman's role. This makes scarier still the thought that he once wanted to become an accountant.
The reason for his influence? Certainly the political seas were increasingly churning with libertaria in the '70s and '80s, but Friedman stood out. In a 1995 Reason interview, Associate Editor Brian Doherty asked Friedman why he had the respectability and presence he has. Answer: "That's because of only one thing: I won the Nobel Prize. What, are you kidding yourself?" I can appreciate some humorous self-deprecation. But the real reason is that Friedman saw what was attainable and lunged for it.
"The difference between me and people like Murray Rothbard is that, though I want to know what my ideal is, I think I also have to be willing to discuss changes that are less than ideal so long as they point me in that direction," he told Doherty. "So while I'd like to abolish the Fed, I've written many pages on how the Fed, if it does exist should be run."
Another example? Friedman is opposed to public money in schools, but led the voucher charge. "I see the voucher as a step in moving away from a government system to a private system." Vouchers are a good answer, however partial, to government involvement because they are attainable. The best answers are the ones you never achieve because they put Uncle Sam out to pasture.
Others in the libertarian world did not have the same impact on policy because they demanded 200-proof antistatist measures to which only a handful of people would assent. Hence the early definition of libertarians: 12 guys selling newsletters to each other.
Friedman, by being pragmatic--and principled--with his message, expanded that pool of people far beyond a dozen. In the 1980s his ideas were smuggled into the Reagan White House, followed in the '90s by the statehouses of the globe. Said Bush in his toast, "the rest of the world is finally catching up with Milton Friedman."
Let's hope we do more than that. Let's push his work forward so we have plenty of good news to report when he turns 100.