Milton Friedman was not just one of the world’s most distinguished economists — he may have also been America’s most famous and influential libertarian.
Writing in Liberty magazine (February 2007), Bruce Ramsey made the argument, “Milton Friedman was not just a figure in the libertarian movement. He was, to Americans generally, a figure emblematic of freedom.”
Brian Doherty, in his book Radicals for Capitalism (2007), wrote that Friedman “has done more to make more people understand and respect the general tenets and thrusts of libertarian ideas than any other libertarian advocate.”
Nearly a Century of Radically Accurate Ideas
It’s hard to argue. During his 94 years, Friedman was a best-selling author, the star of a PBS television series, a presidential advisor, a popular columnist and a Nobel Laureate. His book, Free to Choose (written with wife Rose Friedman), was the best-selling nonfiction book of 1980 and “reinvigorated the world’s faith in capitalism,” according to Mark Skousen (Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 2006). Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, a spirited defense of capitalism as both an economic system and as a necessary foundation for political freedom, sold nearly one million copies.
Many of Friedman’s libertarian ideas, considered radical at the time — including the all-volunteer army, increased competition for the post office, and deregulation of industry — eventually became law. Other Friedman proposals — privatized Social Security, an end to government deficit spending, choice in education and repealing drug prohibition — are still waiting for their moment to arrive.
Born in 1912 in Brooklyn, New York, Friedman was the son of two immigrants from Austria-Hungary. He attended Rutgers University on scholarship, graduating in 1932. He worked for the federal government in the years leading up to World War II and from 1941 to 1943, had a job at the U.S. Treasury Department working on wartime tax policy.
In 1946, Friedman took a job teaching at Chicago University, where he would stay for 30 years. During those years, his research and writings revolutionized how economists viewed monetary policy, floating exchange rates, the relationship between inflation and unemployment and the cause of the Great Depression.
As the years passed, Friedman’s influence grew. He served as an official economic advisor to three presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 (although he later told PBS that “Nixon was the most socialist of the presidents of the United States in the 20th century”) and Ronald Reagan in 1980. From 1969-1970, he was a member of the president’s commission on an all-volunteer armed force and played a major role in ending the military draft.
From 1966 to 1983, Friedman wrote a regular column on current affairs for Newsweek magazine, reaching millions of people. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine on 1969 and was interviewed by Playboy magazine in 1973.
In 1976, Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his “achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Friedman traveled to Chile, South Africa, Rhodesia and China to give advice and lecture on the merits of free-market economic policies.
Free to Choose
In 1980, he and Rose published Free to Choose, a rousing defense of the free market. The book made a convincing argument for repealing most government laws, regulations, agencies that interfere in the economy. That same year, Free to Choose appeared on PBS Television as ten one-hour programs. It was later rebroadcast around the world.
As Rose wrote in their 1998 memoirs, Two Lucky People, “Who would have dreamed that after retiring from teaching, Milton would be able to preach the doctrine of human freedom to many millions of people in countries around the globe through television, millions more through our book based on the television program, and countless others through videocassettes.” Friedman returned to PBS in 1984 with the three-part series, Tyranny of the Status Quo.
Over the years, Friedman continued to publish books, including Price Theory, a college textbook (1962), The Optimum Quantity of Money and Other Essays (1976), A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, with Anna J. Schwartz (1963), Inflation: Causes and Consequences (1963), There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, a collection of columns from Newsweek (1975), Bright Promise, Dismal Performance (1983), Tyranny of the Status Quo, with Rose Friedman (1984), Friedman and Szasz on Liberty and Drugs, with Dr. Thomas Szasz (1992) and Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History (1994).
In 1988, Friedman was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.
In the 1990s, Friedman became a more outspoken opponent of the War on Drugs. In a famous open letter to then-Drug Czar Bill Bennett, Friedman wrote: “The path you propose of more police, more jails, use of the military in foreign countries, harsh penalties for drug users, and a whole panoply of repressive measures can only make a bad situation worse. The drug war cannot be won by those tactics without undermining the human liberty and individual freedom that you and I cherish.”
In 1996, he established The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, devoted to “promoting parental choice in schooling.”
By his later years, Friedman was able to view with satisfaction the increasing acceptance of libertarian and free-market ideas — an acceptance he had helped bring about. “As I look around me, I’m impressed by the fact that there’s increasing attention paid to libertarian ideas,” he told Reason magazine (June 1995). “If you look at the picture now, compared with 30 years ago, there’s no comparison.”
In 2001, in honor of Friedman’s work, the Cato Institute began awarding an annual Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.
Friedman died of heart failure on November 16, 2006.
“My philosophy is clearly libertarian.” — Milton Friedman in Reason magazine (June 1995)
“Reliance on the freedom of people to control their own lives in accordance with their own values is the surest way to achieve the full potential of a great society.” — Milton and Rose Friedman in Free To Choose (1980)