The Right Stuff: Friedman: In Memoriam
On Nov. 16, 2006, the world lost a giant.
Milton Friedman, at 94, was a man whose accomplishments and influence (in academia and in the public forum alike) were well beyond his years. A Nobel laureate and intellectual father of the Chicago school of economics, Friedman truly made a mark on the consciousness of the country. He introduced millions of Americans to the virtues of the free market with a series called “Free to Choose” that aired on PBS in 1980. Friedman’s gift was that he was eminently understandable: He spoke in terms accessible to the average citizen, and did so with a mind to advance the principles of liberty as widely as he could.
My own exposure to the work of Milton Friedman began almost two years ago. I received a copy of a book called Capitalism and Freedom, first published in 1962, as a Christmas gift — and what a gift it was. This treatise on liberty and political economy consumed me for days as I read and read and read. The book had a profound influence on my thinking about political philosophy, and it is a work that I would recommend to anyone eager to learn more about markets and economic freedom. Even for an Oberlin leftist, this work, at the very least, provides a window into the thinking that makes many conservatives (and moderates) so confident in the benefits of free market systems.
Friedman writes this in the introduction to Capitalism and Freedom: “Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power.” And where is power more concentrated today in America than in the hands of the federal government? We need not look far to observe the state’s might being used to coerce individuals and corporations to act in certain ways, to satisfy legislative decrees, or to pay for their fellows. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman makes the case that such intervention is objectionable, and that its consequences are deleterious — not just for wealthy corporations, but for all of us (and particularly for the poor).
In the end, Friedman’s work is exceptionally uplifting. He was ultimately a progressive. I do not mean to invoke this word, as it is commonly accepted today, as interchangeable with “leftist” or “Democrat.” Rather, I mean to say that Friedman’s vision is truly forward-looking: He was concerned more than anything else with the progress and advancement of humanity.
He writes, “Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action.” Well-intentioned policymakers may attempt to enforce minimum standards, but in doing so “government would replace progress by stagnation, it would substitute uniform mediocrity for the variety essential for that experimentation which can bring tomorrow’s laggards above today’s mean.”
Lest Friedman’s regrettable passing go unnoticed on campus, I have a proposal to make. Most Oberlin students were born well after 1980, and thus never had a chance to see Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series on PBS. Why don’t we all spend some time over the next month (Winter Term presents the perfect opportunity) to acquaint ourselves further with the ideas of this peculiarly accessible thinker?
I encourage my classmates to watch the original PBS series. The ideas contained therein are no less applicable today than they were 26 years ago. Visit http://freetochoose.net for more information, and borrow the “Free to Choose” DVDs from the Audiovisual Department in Mudd Library. Alternatively, get a copy of Capitalism and Freedom. I have no doubt that this book will challenge your outlook on the world, as it did mine a couple of years ago.
At a time when freedom continues to be threatened by the coercive power of government, the world lost a true champion for human advancement this November. Let us remember Milton Friedman for his remarkable contributions to the world, and let us hope and pray that others will carry the torch of liberty as boldly as he did. R.I.P.