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."