Milton Friedman. It’s not often that someone's own name becomes an institution in their lifetime. But the economist Milton Friedman, who died Thursday at the age of 94, lived such a long, productive life and influenced so many policymakers around the world that years ago his name became short hand for a school of thought. That school can be summed up in one word: Freedom.
Milton’s devotion to freedom was complete — in his work and in his life. He labored for years in the halls of academe, developing at the University of Chicago the world’s premier free-market economics department. His academic work led to a well deserved Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. But his work always broke through the confines of economic gobbledygook.
Milton believed passionately that the folks out on the street knew far more than stuffy academics about the way freedom works in their lives. All that those in the general public lacked were practical examples of how freedom works (and how government control works badly). Providing the world with the ammunition to defend their freedoms is what Milton loved doing most, usually with his wife and frequent co-author, Rose, by his side. One book in particular, “Free to Choose,” allowed non-economists to make the case for freedom based on examples everyone could understand. The book was based on a PBS television series of the same name produced by Robert Chitester. The book and the TV series influenced millions of folks, and helped pave the way for a re-birth of libertarian thought in America.
Of course, he also advised presidents and world leaders on how to formulate and execute economic policies. Ronald Reagan credited Milton’s policies for helping to transform the pathetic economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter in 1981 into a vibrant, booming one. Margaret Thatcher also credited Milton for designing the free-market policies that helped her turn Britain from a socialist backwater into an economic and financial powerhouse. In fact, one can point to economic revivals in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as examples that were all guided at least in part by Milton’s thinking.
And Milton’s love of freedom extended beyond purely economic matters. He convinced Richard Nixon that forced military service was contrary to our notions of individual liberty. That led to Nixon’s abolition of the draft, and the establishment of our all-volunteer military.
Now before I go any further, you may find it a bit obnoxious that I keep calling this great man by his first name. Most people who’ve earned half as much respect as Milton did would justifiably demand grand titles each time their name was invoked. But not Milton. He didn’t believe in special titles or fanfare. This was no false modesty; he knew the power of his ideas and the effect they had on the world. But he didn’t think that entitled him to any special privilege. In fact, it was the breakdown of special privileges in the world that Milton spent a lifetime promoting.
As a part of this, Milton preferred the casual to the formal. The last time I saw him was just this past May, at a conference in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The conferees were gathered to discuss the merits and practicalities of one of Milton’s proudest inventions, and one which may yet transform America’s education system: School vouchers (about which one can read more in the nearby transcript of a 2004 interview I had with Milton).
At the opening dinner, Milton and I were to appear on stage for an open question-and-answer period, which Milton much preferred to a prepared speech. Before we got on stage, he asked me if I was going to wear a tie. I told him “No,” to which he said “Good, I hate these damn things,” and he quickly pulled his off. He spent the next few days dressed as you see him in the picture at the top of this piece, taken on the last day of the conference with Rose and my own wife, Marta Cecilia.
Another thing revealed at the conference was the clarity of Milton’s mind, which shone through even then, just a few months before his death. During one of our dinners, the political analyst Dick Morris made a rather obscure reference to Richard Nixon’s presidency. Milton corrected Dick’s facts, to which Dick gave a rather dismissive eye-roll and told Milton he was mistaken. But later on at the same conference Dick had to admit that he looked up the reference and discovered that he was wrong and Milton had been right. To trump Dick Morris on political trivia is not easy!
But while trumping the big boys, Milton never found a sincere question by anyone too small to take the time to answer. He never had that imperious attitude that so many academics have. And he never assumed he was right about anything without proof. For as passionately as he believed in freedom, he believed in the truth even more. It was his nagging insistence on getting proof for any point that led to his belief that a marketplace of millions of individuals acting in their own best interests leads to far more inventive and constructive decisions than those made by a collection of Ivy League intellectuals.
Truth and freedom. These were the pillars of Milton Freidman’s philosophy and his life. He believed they should and could also be the pillars of our society. Let us pray he is right.
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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.