Milton Friedman – R. I. P.

“A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome —ahead of freedom will end up with neither. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who will use it to promote their own interests. 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.” – Milton Friedman, Free to Choose.

We often do not recognize the intellectual giants of an era until long after their passing. This fortunately was not the case for economist and the plain-spoken polemicist Milton Friedman who died November 16, 2006 at the age of 94. Friedman received professional recognition by winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976 for his work on “consumption analysis” and “monetary history and theory” as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributing to the idea that “man’s economic rights are as vital as his civil and human rights.” Friedman matched his professional notoriety with the ability to explain his economic and political ideas to lay people. In his seminal TV series “Free to Choose,” broadcast ironically on PBS, Friedman took his case for economic and political freedom to millions of viewers. The series was an outgrowth of a book by the same, co-authored by his wife Rose. Conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. described the book as an “important, shrewd, omnicompetent readable guide to reasoned thought for those who choose to be free.”

The early decades of the last century marked the rise of collectivist ideology that maintained that societies are run more efficiently if centrally managed. The course of the century made clear that such societies are lees free and generally less economically well off.

Friedman walked in the footsteps of Friedrich Hayek the Austrian economist and political philosopher who wrote The Road to Serfdom. Hayek argued that whether Fascist or Socialist, centrally-controlled societies inexorably led to a loss of freedom and individual autonomy regardless of the how well-intentioned the motives of government are. Friedman continued the making case arguing that free enterprise is a necessary component to any free society. It is the market that insures that no one power, the government, a business, or a union has too much power. Indeed, Friedman argued that free markets protect both workers and consumers more than effectively than governments or unions.

Friedman is perhaps best known as an articulate spokesman for vouchers for public education. Like any monopoly public schools are inefficient and primary serve the interests of the monopoly and not the customer. If parents were given a “voucher” to spend for their children at any school, publicly or privately run, the will of parents rather than education bureaucracies would be sovereign. Those schools that most efficiently met the needs of parents seeking the education of their children would be the ones that prospered. In the book Free to Choose, Friedman demonstrated that the decreased educational output was correlated with the growth of larger and larger educational bureaucracies. Comparing the periods 1968-1969 to 1973-1974, the “number of students” in public schools “went up 1 percent, the total professional staff went up 15 percent, and teachers 14 percent, but supervisors went up 44 percent.”

Opponents of vouchers argued that it would harm the poorest students the most, but Friedman countered that they would be the most empowered. Presently, parents already have some choice in education, only it is means tested. Wealthy parents can send their children to any school they want to. The middle class can do they same at significant economic sacrifice, while the poor have no choice but to accept their local publicly-run school. Armed with vouchers, poor parents would begin to have some of the same choices as wealthier ones. All schools would improve under the pressure of an education market.

Friedman’s wit and ire was most passionately directed at the conceit of some school administrators who object to vouchers or any market approach to education on the grounds that educational professionals are more component to make such decisions than parents. Friedman derisively cited the headmaster of a school in Kent England as suggesting that “I’m not sure that parents know what is best educationally for their children.” This arrogance is a consequence insulated bureaucracies. [See this exchange from “Free to Choose” at YouTube.]

By way of comparison, even though the cost of medical care is a complex mixture of private and public spending, people are still generally free to choose their own doctors and medical treatment. Even though medical treatments are far more complex the educational decisions, everyone would cringe at a system that forced specific doctors and treatments on patients on the grounds that doctors know better than patients what is medically best for them.

Milton Friedman’s happy manner made it impossible for some on the Left to demonize him as uncaring and his academic credentials made it difficult to caricature as a Neanderthal Conservative. The force of his intellect and clarity of his exposition were important factors in ushering in the Reagan Revolution and the Right-ward shift of the country. It is an important measure of his success that it is hard to remember how truly revolutionary and liberating his voice was in the 1970s. Many present Conservatives were suckled on words of Milton Friedman. For those who were intellectually aware of the political debate during that time, his loss is a heavy one mitigated by the fact that his words will live on in his books and television series.

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