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The Conservative Curmudgeon
August 20, 2012

Remembering Milton Friedman on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth
by Allan C. Brownfeld

Capitalism & Freedom

ALEXANDRIA, VA — Milton Friedman, the 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize for economic science and the pre-eminent American advocate of free enterprise, was born on July 31, 1912 — 100 years ago. This centennial occasion offers an appropriate time to commemorate his life and reflect upon his achievements in advancing freedom.

It was Milton Friedman’s belief that free enterprise was the only form of economic organization consistent with other freedoms. In his classic book, Capitalism and Freedom, he pointed out, “The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables one to offset the other.”

In his view, “Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated -- a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.”

Businessmen, Friedman liked to say, believe in maximizing profits, not necessarily in promoting genuinely free markets. He declared, “With some notable exceptions, businessmen favor free enterprise in general, but are opposed to it when it comes to themselves.” In a 1983 lecture entitled “The Suicidal Impulse of the Business Community,” he stated, “The broader and more influential organizations of businessmen have acted to undermine the basic foundation of the free market system they purport to represent and defend.”

What would Milton Friedman think of the recent bailout of failing banks, supported by both Republicans and Democrats? According to Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel, “He didn't trust central bankers. He blamed the Bank of Japan for the deflation of the 1990s and the Fed for the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Inflation of the 1970s. He would, if his co-author Anna Schwartz is any clue, have condemned the bank bailouts of recent years. ‘They should not be recapitalizing firms that should be shut down,’ she told the Journal in 2008.”

The issue to which he devoted most of his time in his later years was school choice for all parents, and his Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is dedicated to this cause. He used to lament, “We allow the market, consumer choice, and competition to work in nearly every industry except for the one that may matter most, education.”

Friedman was proud to have been an influential voice in ending the military draft in the 1970s. When his critics argued that he wanted a military of mercenaries, he responded, “If you insist on calling our volunteer soldiers ‘mercenaries,’ I will call those who you want to draft into service involuntary ‘slaves.’”

One of Friedman’s former students at the University of Chicago, the respected economist Thomas Sowell, recalls, “Like many, if not most, people who became prominent opponents of the left, Professor Friedman began on the left. Decades later, looking back at a statement of his own from his early years, he said: ‘The most striking feature of this statement is how thoroughly Keynesian it is.’ No one converted Milton Friedman, either in economics or in his views on social policy. His own research, analysis, and experience converted him. As a professor, he did not attempt to convert students to his political views. I made no secret of the facts that I was a Marxist when I was a student... but he made no effort to change my views. He once said that anybody who was easily converted was not worth converting. I was still a Marxist after taking Professor Friedman’s class. Working as an economist in the government converted me.”

As a student of Friedman’s in 1960, Sowell, who is black, notes, “I was struck by two things — his tough grading standards and the fact that he had a black secretary. This was years before affirmative action. People on the left exhibit blacks as mascots. But I never heard Milton Friedman say that he had a black secretary, though she was with him for decades. Both his grading standards and his refusal to try to be politically correct increased my respect for him.”

In the late 1960s, Friedman explained, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” If the government spends a dollar, that dollar has to come from producers and workers in the private economy.

Friedman once said, “The true test of any scholar's work is not what his contemporaries say, but what happens to his work in the next 25 or 50 years. And the thing that I will really be proud of is if some of the work I have done is still cited in the textbooks long after I’m gone.”

It seems certain that Milton Friedman will not only be cited in the textbooks but that men and women who value freedom everywhere in the world will recognize in him one of its prophetic voices. He clearly identified the intrinsic link between freedom of speech, religious freedom, the freedom to govern oneself — and economic freedom, which, as he often pointed out, is simply democracy applied to the marketplace.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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