The Life and Times of Milton Friedman: Remembering the 20th Century's Most Influential Libertarian

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Life and Times of Milton Friedman: Remembering the 20th Century's Most Influential Libertarian


Doherty, Brian, Reason


WHEN MILTON FRIEDMAN stepped forward on December 10, 1976, to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences from the King of Sweden, he needed bodyguards. His moment of glory was marred by a mob of protesters outside gathering to condemn Friedman's alleged complicity in the crimes of the military regime ruling Chile, which allegedly lived and died according to his theories. One heckler even slipped inside, shouting "down with capitalism, freedom for Chile" from the balcony.

It was a telling moment in a controversial career. Despite being a professional academic, Friedman had never locked himself away in an ivory tower. Until his death at the age of 94 on November 16, 2006, he remained an intellectual warrior for ideas in the day-to-day world, and he helped change that world in important and positive ways. Along the way he made a lot of enemies, some of whom shouted their insults from places more respectable than a mob outside the Stockholm Concert Hall.

Writing in The Washington Post, the journalist Bernard Nossiter claimed Friedman won only because the Nobel in economics, rather than being one of the original prizes established in Alfred Nobel's will, was a later addition financed by the Swedish Central Bank--and central banks, he declared, adored Friedman. In fact, Friedman had long advocated the abolition of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the world's mightiest central bank. He thought it better to replace its control over interest rates and the money supply with a mechanical rule for monetary growth.

In The New Republic, in those days the leading voice of American liberalism, Melville J. Ulmer likened Friedman's economics prize to a peace prize for Idi Amin or a literature prize for Spiro Agnew. While acknowledging that no economist seemed surprised or appalled at Friedman's laurel, Ulmer claimed that "much of the world" bridled at his winning. Despite his pique, Ulmer did accurately summarize what Friedman represented for the millions of people who read his popular column of political and economic commentary in Newsweek and the hundreds of thousands who had read his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, which argued that free markets were an essential part of any truly free society.

"Friedman," Ulmer wrote, "is best known as a tireless, peppery advocate of liberalism in the 19th century European sense, perhaps the nation's outstanding intellectual exponent of laissez-faire.... He opposes government activity of practically all kinds.... He would abolish virtually all regulations on industry, working conditions, and the professions. He would turn over to private industry the nation's schools, highways, federal parks, the post office and all other publicly operated services like water supply, local buses and subways. He would scrap Social Security, the entire welfare system and the progressive income tax schedule. Few, if any, measures to protect the environment or the consumer would win his approval. He would terminate all government efforts to stabilize the economy through fiscal and monetary policies, public works or other means. He would leave presidential candidates, and I suppose all other candidates for public office, with nothing to talk about" (Italics in original.)

Friedman did call for all that, and the intellectual acumen that won him the Nobel helped him become the most widely heeded and influential advocate for libertarian ideas in the 20th century. Because of his successes, we now live, to a delightful degree, in Friedman's world. Beyond his specific policy victories on matters such as ending the draft and curbing inflation, on a higher level he lived to see communism, the antithesis of his economic and social beliefs, die. Smuggled copies of Friedman's writings helped inspire and educate dissidents in the Soviet bloc, and the most economically successful former republic of the USSR, Estonia, achieved its growth with policies inspired directly by Friedman's work. …

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