Editorial | Milton Friedman
Agree with him or not, the legacy is vast
On Thursday, a much-beloved, extremely influential, much-reviled
American thinker died. He helped shape an ideological and political
revolution here and overseas. Some call him a genius who told the
truth, once and for all; just as many call him an architect of an era
of selfishness and backwardness.
But then, that's what great thinkers and great thoughts do - provoke
passion. Whether you liked him or not, when economist Milton Friedman
died, America lost one of its most prominent, most effective thinkers
about the wealth of nations. In economics, only a few other names -
Smith, Marx, Keynes, Galbraith - rank with his.
No American economist had a more distinguished career. Friedman
entered government work as a worker for New Deal programs. In 1946 he
became a professor at the University of Chicago, where he taught for
the next 30 years. In the 1950s, he helped build the Chicago School of
Economics, which has produced eight Nobel Prize-winners.
In 1962, he published Capitalism and Freedom, his great
statement of the belief that shrinking government's role in the free
market would give people more freedom. The next year, he and Anna
Schwartz published A Monetary History of the United States, which suggested that changes in the money supply could drive changes in the economy.
In 1976, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Four years later, his TV show Free to Choose
ran on PBS. The resulting book, cowritten with his wife, Rose, may as
well have been a salvo for the Reagan Revolution. Friedman, who thought
of himself as a libertarian rather than a doctrinaire conservative,
joined President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board in 1981. He
received the 1988 National Medal of Science and the 1988 Presidential
Medal of Freedom.
Was he right? The jury is out and probably always will be. His most
famous single dictum was that private individuals will put their money
to better use than government ever can for them. But do Americans merit
such trust? U.S. consumers have a lousy rate of savings; the way they
use their money, all too often, is to spend it. Individually and as a
country, we're addicted to red ink. And - granting the controversy over
its true extent - poverty is still poverty, with no solution, public or
private, in sight. Some economists and politicians are starting to see
the United States as - gasp! - an undertaxed nation. And many, many are the services the private sector either can't or won't provide.
Yet Friedman's legacy is indeed vast. The U.S. government is much
smaller than it once was, federal taxes much lower. Much of what
government once did now lies in private hands (sometimes - think
"Halliburton" - less than happily). We have an all-volunteer Army. Our
reformed welfare system lays greater stress on work. Around the
country, school districts are instituting vouchers, charter schools,
and other ways of injecting competition into the previous government
monopoly on public education.
In the private sector, employers are moving away from pensions,
obliging individuals to provide for more and more of their own futures.
And we have become more of an entrepreneurial culture, more conscious of our power to invest and share in the larger economy.
Much of that is good; much is troubled. But what a vast, swift
revolution (26 years). It's a reality and will remain so for
The most regrettable thing about Friedman's ideas is how others used
them. Seized upon by trenchantly partisan advocates, they quickly
became, not an economics, but a theology. In the sour echo-chamber of
American politics, you either were a true believer or an infidel.
For his part, Friedman wanted not a religion but a more free
republic. His ideas and efforts toward that end have helped make this
country what it is today. Some will say for better; others will say for