Sunday, August 5, 2012


This week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Milton Friedman.  There were plenty of articles marking the date and I wasn't going to post anything but then ran across this appreciation on National Review Online by Kevin Williamson which captured what I enjoyed about Friedman's approach (and, in passing, what I disliked about Ayn Rand).

When reading Williamson's piece, excerpted below (you can find the whole thing here), it oddly enough reminded me of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth Of Nations, even though Smith would not have thought of himself as a libertarian (for that matter, I don't consider myself one either).  Smith considered himself to be a moral philosopher, not an economist.  In fact, the book he wrote before Nations was The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  As P.J. O'Rourke noted in his book on Smith:

"Adam Smith did not think we are innately good any more than he thought we are innately rich. But he thought we are endowed with the imaginative capacity to be both, if we're free to make the necessary efforts."

That struck me as a Friedman like sentiment.  Of course, O'Rourke also noted that Smith's books fit in the category of "Works Which Let's Admit You'll Never Read The Whole Of".

Smith and Friedman both remind us that the aggregate individual decisions of a free people are actually the most powerful and efficient force for collective action in any society.  As always, it is about who makes the decisions.

It reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story (I can't prove it's true but will use in it accordance with The Official Policy Of This Blog).  During the Cold War, a new Soviet diplomat was visiting London.  As he was being driven around he was amazed to see no bread lines (a common sight in Moscow) at any of the bakeries they were passing.  Very impressed, he turned to the Brit accompanying him and asked "Who is the official responsible for organizing the supply of bread for London?"   The answer of course was no one.

Friedman also recognized (in his book Capitalism And Freedom) that:

"What the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means"

When that balance gets out of hand, and more and more issues become political, a system of governance can get out of whack as noted in this prior post.  It also means that more and more money gets injected into politics because everything in society is up for political grabs.  If you want less money in politics make politics about less.

Here's some of what Williamson wrote (and it is worth reading the whole piece as he talks about growing up in a household that was struggling economically):

"I had learned many things before encountering Free to Choose, but the work of Milton Friedman was the first thing I learned that seemed to matter. . . Everything of course seems intense and unprecedented in adolescence — because everything is new — and there is something of the quality of romance to a first intellectual love. For me it was Walt Whitman and Milton Friedman, my church and state. I thank the heavens that my literature curriculum hadn’t included Ayn Rand and that my economics teacher didn’t assign us John Kenneth Galbraith. (And surely you know the joke: All great economists are tall, with two exceptions: Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith.)

The libertarianism of Rand (and she hated the word “libertarian”) was based on an economics of resentment of the “moochers” and “loafers,” the sort of thing that leads one to call a book The Virtue of Selfishness. Friedman’s libertarianism was based on an economics of love: for real human beings leading real human lives with real human needs and real human challenges. He loved freedom not only because it allowed IBM to pursue maximum profit but because it allowed for human flourishing at all levels. Economic growth is important to everybody, but it is most important to the poor. While Friedman’s contributions to academic economics are well appreciated and his opposition to government shenanigans is celebrated, what is seldom remarked upon is that the constant and eternal theme of his popular work was helping the poor and the marginalized. Friedman cared about the minimum wage not only because it distorted labor markets but because of the effect it has on low-skill workers: permanent unemployment. He called the black unemployment rate a “disgrace and a scandal,” and the unemployment statute the “most anti-black law” on the books with good reason. He talked about two “machines”: “There has never been a more effective machine for the elimination of poverty than the free-enterprise system and a free market.” “We have constructed a governmental welfare scheme which has been a machine for producing poor people. . . . I’m not blaming the people. It’s our fault for constructing so perverse and so ill-shaped a monster.”

Free to Choose gave me the intellectual framework to understand what I already intuited about the welfare state, about the man from the government who says he is here to help. And that is what really should be remembered about Milton Friedman: He didn’t argue for capitalism in order to make the world safe for the Fortune 500, but to open up a world of possibilities for those who are most in need of them. The real subject of economics isn’t supply and demand, but people, and to love liberty is to love people and all that is best in them. And it is something that can only be done when we are free to choose."

If you haven't seen Friedman here is he on the Phil Donahue Show (probably around 1980).  It also shows how much things have changed in our discourse since they aren't yelling at each other.


  1. Well, it seems the consumer still deals the cards. But is that changing? Are choices strategically limited? Very interesting and insightful blog, got me thinking! dm

  2. A popular talk show host had Milton Friedman on for 45 minutes ?