Bob Chitester was a public TV station manager in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the late 1970s when he had the idea to make an original series about the libertarian economist Milton Friedman's ideas. To produce the programs he raised the current equivalent of $8 million—entirely from private sources, in keeping with the spirit of the project. The series, Free to Choose, was a huge breakthrough for Friedman, introducing his ideas to viewers across America. Shortly before Friedman's death last November, Chitester finished another project with him: The Power of Choice, a 90-minute biographical documentary on his friend's life and thought. It debuted on PBS stations in January.
Chitester currently is working on two one-hour TV programs with development economist Hernando de Soto. He is in the early stages of producing a series with Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.
Q: What has changed in the 26 years since you made Free to Choose?
A: The media have changed dramatically. Today getting anyone out there in the world to commit the time necessary for 10 one-hour segments of Free to Choose is almost a nonstarter.
Free to Choose was a direct visual essay on Milton Friedman's ideas, but today that's less attractive to people. Biographies are very appealing. Milton agreed to do The Power of Choice because he understood that we were going to use the story of his life in order to try to convey as much as we could of the impact and the substance of his ideas.
In terms of the ideas, markets are looked upon in a much more favorable way today than they were in 1980. [Former Harvard President] Larry Summers has indicated to me that he feels there needs to be a great deal of effort to persuade people of the degree to which markets promote growth, which is really the solution to poverty and physical misery in the world. In that sense there had been a significant change.
On the other hand, program five in Free to Choose was on equality, which still remains an open issue. To me it is the Achilles heel that we must somehow deal with if freedom is to be expanded. The temptation is extremely great to redistribute the wealth that markets create. More and more governments are acknowledging free markets and to a certain degree giving them the environment in which to flourish. But then you see in the developed nations an equally strong, if not stronger, predisposition to use government to tax very heavily and redistribute that wealth.
Q: Who was your most valuable convert?
A: Thousands of people have said to Milton, [his wife and coauthor] Rose, and me over the last 25 years, "Free to Choose changed my life." Those range all the way from grocery clerks, cab drivers, and airline pilots to heads of state. Heads of state like [former Estonian Prime Minister] Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Mongolia, and others who say Free to Choose is what they used to guide their policies once they came out from under the heel of the Soviets.
Q: Who do you see as Friedman's heir?
A: Those economists, like Milton, who are extremely competent scholars and at the same time have the gift of being able to take very serious and difficult-to-understand scholarship, translate it into easily understood examples, and communicate those ideas to the wider public. I was in the bookstore at the Detroit airport last weekend and there, right in the middle, is a display of the hardback Freakonomics. It's basically a book about how markets work, voluntary exchange, etc. How often do you see one of those books—a serious book—in an airport newsstand at all, let alone almost two years after it came out? I think Freakonomics is certainly a step in the right direction.
And South Park, but it's harder to make more South Parks.