Milton Friedman

Bob Chitester: How Free To Choose Changed the World

Here's the inside story of Milton Friedman's path-breaking PBS series about economic and political freedom, from the man who produced it.

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Forty years ago, PBS (of all networks) gave the libertarian economist Milton Friedman hours in prime time for Free To Choose, an unapologetic defense of why capitalism was both morally and pragmatically superior to socialism. Over the course of 10 hourlong episodes, the Nobel Prize winner laid out the pitfalls of protectionism. espoused the virtues of school choice, and explained why spending, not taxes, is the real measure of the burden that governments put on their citizens.

Long before the internet and YouTube democratized discourse, Friedman showcased an assortment of relatively unknown radical thinkers such as economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell while subjecting popular left-wing intellectuals such as democratic socialist Michael Harrington, teachers union head Albert Shanker, and political scientist Frances Fox Piven to withering criticism of their ideas.

Free to Choose has been translated into two dozen languages and a companion book, co-authored by Milton and his wife Rose, became a New York Times bestseller. The show began life as a response to The Age of Uncertainty, a 1977 PBS series hosted by John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard professor who had served as ambassador to India and was a leading evangelist for big-government liberalism.

The visionary producer behind the series was Bob Chitester, a hardcore free marketer who ran the PBS affiliate in Erie, Pennsylvania, and wanted to bring libertarian ideas to mainstream audiences. "Age of Uncertainty was an attempt to begin to use storytelling as a way to reach people, but it was a dismal failure because Galbraith was terrible," the 83-year-old Chitester tells Nick Gillespie in a wide-ranging conversation. "The series just went into a black hole and disappeared. It's not like Free To Choose, which is just everywhere, even 40 years later." 

In the 1980s, says Chitester, programs about free markets "were really muckraking attacks on what was perceived to be abusive and unsympathetic…capitalism, where profit was all that mattered." Free To Choose talked about capitalism in upbeat, positive terms, stressing how it helped individuals rather than exploited them and how it brought about cooperation in a way that benefitted the poor most of all. After Free To Choose, Chitester would go on to produce more shows and collaborate with figures such as broadcaster John Stossel, economist Johan Norberg, and federal judge Douglas H. Ginsburg. His project izzit.org has delivered videos and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of K-12 classrooms around the country.

Did Friedman make any mistakes in Free To Choose? His celebration of the free market miracle in Hong Kong is poignant to watch at the moment when the city's freedoms are under siege. But before his death in 2006, Chitester says Friedman came to question his famous axiom that economic freedom in autocracies such as China would inexorably give rise to political and cultural freedom. "In a discussion close to near the end of his life, he said, 'Bob, I made a mistake. I was wrong. You [also] have to have rule of law. You have to have law that applies equally to everyone,'" recalls Chitester. "And clearly that's what you see not happening in China."

Ailing from a long bout with cancer, Chitester is contemplating his own mortality and how American society has changed since Free To Choose first aired 40 years ago. He's proud that the program remains popular online but, like Friedman, feels its analysis is incomplete. "Power is really something we have to factor into our thinking…The desire of humans to tell other humans what to do—when you couple that with equality, boy, you've got a recipe for constant problems in defending a classical liberal society."

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  1. It would be interesting to see but it will never be on PBS again and many will claim its dated. so are the ten commandments but those old rules still apply

    1. I’m pretty sure it’s all still on Youtube. Worth a watch. The discussion part that comes after the documentary part of each episode is interesting. So many arguments that still go on in exactly the same way. It’s always a delight to see Friedman tearing down ridiculous left-wing arguments, all with a big smile and complete kindness and patience. And you get to see youngish Tom Sowell and Don Rumsfeld.

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      1. I love the one discussion when the assistant muckimuck of some federal agency finally shot back, “But there will always be a bottom 20% and we have to help them!”

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  2. Back when libertarian didn’t mean libertine sexuality and progressive economics.

    1. It doesn’t mean that now. What the hell are you talking about? I assume it’s a dig at Reason, but I don’t see where you could accuse them of progressive economics.

          1. We should hope the President never has a health care plan.

        1. Go easy on him, this could last all day

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      1. I don’t see where you could accuse them of progressive economics.

        Supporting VAT. Supporting carbon taxes. Supporting renewable energy subsidies.

        This is by no means confined to Reason either. BleedingHeartLibertarians, Niskanen, etc all support raising taxes, increasing welfare, single-payer healthcare, banning carbon fuels, and the whole suite of radical left wing economics and social policy.

        This is the 3rd time in about a week that you and I have had this discussion. Can I just ask you: exactly which “libertarians” are you reading that actually agree with any of the bullshit you purport to believe? Seriously. Name one representative of “libertarianism” that actually agrees with anything you have to say. I mentioned Lew Rockwell the last time. And I mentioned that you all reject Lew Rockwell as a representative of libertarianism. And I was vindicated on that score when a half dozen people chimed in to confirm that Lew Rockwell is not a real libertarian. So again… any examples to support what you say? Just one?

        1. Libertarians are people who hold to libertarian principle. If they actually support those things (as opposed to seeing them as more acceptable compromises than the current state of affairs), they aren’t libertarians. Yeah, there are a lot of soft libertarians in the pundit sphere who are hardly worthy of the name, but they don’t get to define the core meaning of the philosophy.

    2. It’s never meant that, it will never mean that, and it doesn’t mean that now.

      It DOES mean the state doesn’t get to regulate your private sexual behavior, and it DOES mean you are free to trade with other individuals in other countries, and it DOES mean you are free to cross invisible lines on the map. All of the above within reason of course. All sides must consent to that private sexual behavior, one may not trade in stolen goods regardless of the location of the second party, and upon crossing that invisible line you’re now subject to a different jurisdiction.

      That’s NOT libertinism, nor is it progressive economics. A progressive would fund the sexual behavior, massively regulate that trade, and build a wall with turrets along that invisible line to keep the dissidents from leaving.

  3. Can this podcast please be renamed “Wide-ranging conversations with Nick Gillespie”?

  4. “In a discussion close to near the end of his life, he said, ‘Bob, I made a mistake. I was wrong. You [also] have to have rule of law. You have to have law that applies equally to everyone,'” recalls Chitester. “And clearly that’s what you see not happening in China.”

    He may be wrong about having been wrong.

    Even if markets isn’t all you need, if markets are necessary but not sufficient, that isn’t being entirely wrong. The other part of the question is how you bring about the rule of law, and the answer to that may have something to do with markets being both necessary and sufficient to make that happen.

    Because something didn’t happen within the span of Friedman’s lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As China becomes more prosperous, its people become more invested in seeing that their property is protected by law. Because we haven’t seen the end of that story yet, doesn’t mean it has no end.

    China has had other absolute emperors lose the mandate of heaven and fall, and there isn’t anything special about the Mao Dynasty in that regard.

    P.S. Joe Biden is a crook.

    1. We are seeing the reverse here in the USA, as we become less free due to government bullying.

      1. Because we lost the Rule of Law.

        1. We didn’t lose the rule of law, so much as we gained an extra one. One rule of law for most of us, and one for the elites.

          1. You haven’t been paying attention during 2020 then. Governors and local official can do what the fuck they want without any judicial oversight. The only checks left in place worrying about the next election. The worst offenders are places where partisanship swings strongly in one direction or the other (ei. California).

    2. joe a crook? what makes you say that? i havent seen anything in the media to suggest this? you must be a russian bot!

    3. Because something didn’t happen within the span of Friedman’s lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As China becomes more prosperous, its people become more invested in seeing that their property is protected by law. Because we haven’t seen the end of that story yet, doesn’t mean it has no end.

      Idiotic apologists for Chinese communism like you have been saying this bullshit since the 1970s. You’re pretty fucking stupid so I’ll help you with the math: that’s 50 years. Half a century. China is every bit as authoritarian now as it was in 1970, and in 1980, and in 1990, and in 2000, and in 2010. Technology has solidified its position rather than liberated the Chinese people as we were assured by the technoutopians in the ’90s and ’00s. But sure, we’re just one more 1/2 cent per unit blow molded plastic piece of shit from China being a liberal Western democracy. It’s a-comin’ any day now.

      1. It’s a bit of a puzzle. I guess they would need to embrace democracy, which will lead to the non-libertarian outcome of the current crony cleptocracy that we see in Western countries today. Too bad there wasn’t some way to transition from Communism to libertarianism. We still don’t really know how to transition from democracy to libertarianism.

  5. Free to Choose brought me to libertarianism and capitalism in my most formative years. Perhaps its biggest influence was to show me how to think about politics and world events. There are cause and effect relationships between policy, economics, and outcomes for people like me. It sound so elementary, but how many of our regular trolls are trolls because they don’t have any sense of that?

    The progressive view seems to be all about not understanding that the future depends on what we choose to do today, and what we choose to do has different consequences depending on our choices. How could we have known what would become of ObamaCare, Venezuela under Chavez, and what will happen because of the Green New Deal?

    P.S. Joe Biden is a crook.

    1. The most valuable lesson I learned from it was: if you ever subsidize– and there might be legitimate reasons for doing so– you subsidize the buyers, NEVER the sellers.

      If the sellers are being subsidized, somebody’s a crook.

    2. I first bought the book back in college, almost a decade after it was printed. Then much later I bought the TV series on DVD, which I missed as a kid.

      As formative to my libertarian mindset as anything written by Rothbard.

      1. You literally regurgitate every single left wing talking point brought up by the guests on the show during the Q&A sessions, so I guess in that sense you’re right.

  6. I told Tara she was fee to choose my finger or my thumb. – Joe Biden

    1. Tara said you get to choose a hole.

  7. It’s disappointing that PBS gave alt-right white supremacists like Sowell a platform.

    Shame. Do better, PBS.

    1. you logged into yhe wrong account

  8. Hard to believe PBS was once amenable to free economic exchange.

    1. At the time we still had the Fairness Doctrine. They aired programs like this to keep from getting sued. Same reason they let William F. Buckley have a show.

  9. This is a great interview about a great person! I loved hearing about not only Milton Friedman’s intellect and major scholarly contributions, but also his humanity. The stories about his dinner parties, tennis, and his wife Rose are priceless.
    It brought a smile to my face thinking about the irony of Milton Friedman being so successful on PBS. A marriage of complete opposites.
    Once again, thank you for a great podcast.

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  11. Meanwhile, in the present day real world, Lou Reed is dead and socialism is more popular than ever.

    Reason really seems to wallow in late 60s/early 70s nostalgia.

    1. You mean the good old days when Reason was libertarian?

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  13. But does anybody know how pencils are made?

  14. Friedman put economics before politics. That’s like putting politics before ethics, or ethics before epistemology, or epistemology before metaphysics. We must start with metaphysics and consistently apply an Aristotelian philosophy, as Ayn Rand did.
    David Friedman corrected his father’s mistakes. Larken Rose takes on the myth of authority as “The Most Dangerous Superstition”. He is raising money on Indiegogo for a feature movie.

  15. “Free to Choose” changed me. Along with “Firing Line” also on PBS.

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