A man born the year that New York State decreed a 54-hour labor week and the U.S. Treasury Department stopped the use of common drinking cups on interstate passenger trains – let’s just say a man of that vintage might not qualify automatically as a prophet in the age of the iPhone. Unless the man was Milton Friedman, born July 31, 1912 – an intellectual titan as relevant today as when he died in 2006 after a life heaped high with honors and praise.
For one thing, how many deceased economists manage to inspire protests over plans to inscribe their names on college buildings?
At the University of Chicago, where Friedman earned a master’s degree in 1933 and taught memorably from 1946 to 1976, a mini-revolt of faculty is afoot due to the projected opening this fall of the Milton Friedman Institute.
More than 100 University of Chicago professors signed a petition denigrating “the ideological and disciplinary preference implied by the university’s massive support for the economic and political doctrines that have extended from Friedman’s work.”
In other words, these learned academics don’t cotton to Friedmanite notions of free markets founded on consumer choice, with as few penalties as possible attached to their operation.
A lot of other Americans, despite the general success of free market policies since the Reagan years, similarly view with apathy or actual hostility Friedman’s carefully measured empirical arguments for minimizing regulation and keeping taxes low.
It’s the very reverse of the formula that centralizers and regulators hope voters will vote for in November – a possibility not even a Friedmanite should rule out. Only this month, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist of moderately conservative bent, declared, “We’re entering an era of epic legislation…[T]he next few years will be an age of government activism” on issues ranging from health care to infrastructure reform.
Brooks was trying to challenge conservatives to pick up some if not all of these balls and run to the right with them. Yet to have watched and read and heard Milton Friedman for decades is to know how he would receive such counsel.
Not with shock. Remember that one of his surpassing strengths was understanding that the regulatory mind is ever busy with schemes for “improvement.” Still, for all the evenness and fluency of tone that made him so formidable in public argument, he would have been stern. His contention, the fruit of non-stop reflection on the resourcefulness of free minds and free markets, would have been, look here, it wasn’t too little government that brought on the present mess, it was too much or the wrong kind of government “help” and direction.
We’ve got inflation, do we? Friedman knew how that always gets going: The Fed reacts to current business conditions with policies that – apart from their immediate effects on the stock market – weigh on future business cycles. The Fed’s policies take effect at the wrong time, Friedman was always arguing. What you get when the Fed tries to pump up a sagging economy is inflation, which infallibly cuts purchasing power, undermines savings, distorts economic decision-making, and in the end turns into a problem requiring major pain to resolve.
Concerning energy, Friedman would have cited federal bans on new offshore drilling as a major cause of the worldwide petroleum shortages driving gasoline prices and political hysteria to new heights. He would have affirmed the market’s miraculous capacity for directing resources to the likeliest sources of new energy. How he would have laughed at Al Gore’s dream of eliminating carbon-based fuels in 10 years!
Or perhaps not. Among other salutary things, Milton Friedman was a gentleman, not a scoffer. He trafficked in ideas, not the vituperation we see everywhere nowadays, from the internet to the campaign trail. He saw clearly, reasoned sharply, spoke out with a lucidity too rare in our times. If only he were still around to blow out the latest set of birthday candles!
William Murchison is a Senior Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.