Acton Commentary

Milton Friedman and the Human Element


Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

A great champion of freedom passed from this life on November 16 at the age of 94. He was Milton Friedman, an economist and a moral thinker whose life and work deserves to be celebrated.

In the 1970s, when I was still enamored by the claims of socialist ideas, someone gave me a number of books that would change the entire course of my life. Among those books was Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom . In Friedman I found the same goals I aspired to attain for society, namely freedom of thought and association, participation and economic prosperity; the means, however, were radically different from the various distribution schemes. Rather, Friedman boldly, clearly and in a very accessible manner outlined a convincing case for a society based on the right to private property and free exchange as being more likely to achieve these goals. I suspect that my experience is similar to many others.

Friedman was a famed economist who won the Nobel Prize for his technical work on money and the business cycle. He showed that a stable money is essential to sound economic growth. Even in this area, he also struck a blow for freedom by showing the failings of centralized monetary and fiscal planning.

His theory of expectations effectively demonstrated that acting people are usually capable of outwitting the planners, and that government planning quite often yields results opposite of those intended by the people at the top. “Concentrated power,” he said, “is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

His contributions go way beyond what the Nobel committee named. He demonstrated the failure of minimum wage laws, mercantilist trade policies, rent control, public monopolies on education, state-run professional licensure, and welfare states. He was passionate on the topic of economic growth. He argued that the way out of poverty was the expansion of capital, not the redistribution of wealth, and he cited case after case.

Friedman was a positivist in principle but, in practice, he never lost sight of the human element. He struggled to come to terms with the implications of human choice in every area of life, and his scientific studies led him to the conclusion that the free economy was the economic means toward the development and flourishing of society.

I first met Milton and Rose Friedman (one was most likely to meet them together, so attached were they to one another) in 1990 and recall how delighted they were to meet a priest who shared so many of their economic ideas. They were unfailing supportive and encouraging over the years to the work of the Acton Institute..

Keep in mind that while many of his positions are commonplace in politics today, forty years ago, he was very much the radical. For an intellectual of his stature and brilliance to come to the defense of classical liberalism was something quite remarkable. His clarion call to rethink the merit of government control of the economy inspired several generations to look more deeply at the wisdom of 19 th and 18 th century thinkers.

He was also unique among the economists, especially in the 1960s, for daring to raise moral arguments on behalf of his scientific conclusions. “The only way that has ever been discovered to have a lot of people cooperate together voluntarily is through the free market. And that's why it's so essential to preserving individual freedom.”

Whereas many moral philosophers put issues of liberty as a lower concern to matters of equality and justice, Friedman sought to bring clarity to the issue. “The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Freedom...preserves the opportunity for today's less well off to become tomorrow's rich, and in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a richer and fuller life.”

He wrote for the average person precisely because he believed that the opinions that people hold about economics matter for our future. He sought to educate everyone he could. He was a legendary professor but he wrote in magazines and newspapers, and dedicated a great deal of his personal financial wealth to advancing the causes that were dear to his heart.

A caricature of the economist suggests that he or she is only interested in the well being of business or in defending commercial classes. That this is not the case is illustrated in a cause that occupied so many of Friedman's writings in the latter part of his life: education for the poor. From his perspective, he knew that the rich would be taken care of in education. But he sought a system that would provide a way for the poor to choose better options than failing schools. His voucher program sought to do that.

Milton Friedman was not an avowed advocate of the unity of economics and religious faith. We had our differences on questions of religion to be sure, specifically on the notion that liberty needs to be oriented to truth in order to insure its proper use. Friedman was a true Enlightenment disciple and feared that truth claims could lead to coercion. Nonetheless, our exchanges on these matters, in person or in writing, were always pleasant and friendly. It was just his nature to be kind but those who pursue the vision of a society that is both virtuous and free find support in his work, for his faith was in the capacity of a free people to manage their lives in absence of relentless government dictate. He saw that freedom works and that freedom is good. All who share his faith are in his debt, now and for many generations to come.