For today’s “top whatever” list, we’re going to commemorate the 100th birthday of Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist Milton Friedman. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Friedman, here’s what you need to know: he rescued the U.S. economy from the clutches of President Carter’s stagflation [i.e. rising inflation and unemployment] and, as the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore puts it, he “saved capitalism.”
“Next to Ronald Reagan, in the second half of the 20th century there was no more influential voice for economic freedom world-wide than Milton Friedman,” writes Moore.
“Small in stature but a giant intellect, he was the economist who saved capitalism by dismembering the ideas of central planning when most of academia was mesmerized by the creed of government as savior,” he adds.
And like most towering intellects, Friedman was a font of pithy and brilliant one-liners. In honor of his birthday, here are our favorite quotes from Milton Friedman with accompanying words from Stephen Moore:
“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for 1976 — at a time when almost all the previous prizes had gone to socialists. This marked the first sign of the intellectual comeback of free-market economics since the 1930s, when John Maynard Keynes hijacked the profession.
Friedman’s 1971 book “A Monetary History of the United States,” written with Anna Schwartz (who died on June 21), was a masterpiece and changed the way we think about the role of money.
“Governments never learn. Only people learn.”
In the early 1990s, Friedman visited poverty-stricken Mexico City for a Cato Institute forum. I remember the swirling controversy ginned up by the media and Mexico’s intelligentsia: How dare this apostle of free-market economics be given a public forum to speak to Mexican citizens about his “outdated” ideas? Yet when Milton arrived in Mexico he received a hero’s welcome as thousands of business owners, students and citizen activists hungry for his message encircled him everywhere he went, much like crowds for a modern rock star.
Once in the early 1960s, Friedman wrote the then-U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, that he would be lecturing in India. By all means come, the witty but often wrong Galbraith replied: “I can think of nowhere your free-market ideas can do less harm than in India.” As fate would have it, India did begin to embrace Friedmanism in the 1990s, and the economy began to soar. China finally caught on too.
“Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.”
More influential than Friedman’s scholarly writings was his singular talent for communicating the virtues of the free market to a mass audience. His two best-selling books, “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) and “Free to Choose” (1980), are still wildly popular.
Friedman stood unfailingly and heroically with the little guy against the state. He used to marvel that the intellectual left, which claims to espouse “power to the people,” so often cheers as states suppress individual rights.
Here’s an example of Friedman’s unique ability to succinctly and eloquently communicate free market principles to even the most ardent leftist college student:
And in regards to his standing for “the little guy,” here’s a brilliant video of Friedman explaining how social programs intended to “help” the poor more often than not end up doing the exact opposite:
“I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.”
I remember asking Milton, a year or so before his death, during one of our semiannual dinners in downtown San Francisco: What can we do to make America more prosperous? “Three things,” he replied instantly. “Promote free trade, school choice for all children, and cut government spending.”
How much should we cut? “As much as possible.”
“If you put the Federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.”
While he questioned almost every statist orthodoxy, he fearlessly gored sacred cows of both political parties. He was the first scholar to sound the alarm on the rotten deal of Social Security for young workers — forced to pay into a system that will never give back as much as they could have accumulated on their own. He questioned the need for occupational licenses — which he lambasted as barriers to entry — for everything from driving a cab to passing the bar to be an attorney, or getting an M.D. to practice medicine.
He loved turning the intellectual tables on liberals by making the case that regulation often does more harm than good. His favorite example was the Food and Drug Administration, whose regulations routinely delay the introduction of lifesaving drugs. “When the FDA boasts a new drug will save 10,000 lives a year,” he would ask, “how many lives were lost because it didn’t let the drug on the market last year?”
“Many people want the government to protect the consumer. A much more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.”
In a recent tribute to Friedman in the Journal of Economic Literature, Harvard’s Andrei Shleifer describes 1980-2005 as “The Age of Milton Friedman,” an era that “witnessed remarkable progress of mankind. As the world embraced free-market policies, living standards rose sharply while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined.”
Well over 200 million were liberated from poverty thanks to the rediscovery of the free market.
Final thought: Although he witnessed the economic mess brought about by Carter’s policies, we can’t help but wonder how shocked Friedman would be with the policies of the current administration.
“It’s a tragedy that Milton Friedman … did not live long enough to combat the big-government ideas that have formed the core of Obamanomics,” Moore writes.
“It’s perhaps more tragic that our current president, who attended the University of Chicago where Friedman taught for decades, never fell under the influence of the world’s greatest champion of the free market. Imagine how much better things would have turned out, for Mr. Obama and the country,” he adds.
And with President Obama’s “government makes everything possible” ideology in mind, here’s Friedman on the idea of personal and individual responsibility: