Thoughts on Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

I read Capitalism and Freedom sometime during my sophomore year in collegeââ?¬â??1977ââ?¬â??when any proposition of permitting telecom competition, let-alone private sanitation services and privately-managed toll roads, would get you laughed out of your economics class. It’s hard to believe that Friedman, who died today at 94, came of age in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when capitalism and market economics were highly suspect. Instead, people around the world were turning to totalitarian governments, and many of Friedman’s intellectual contemporaries believed that true freedom lay in socialism. While the U.S. never embraced the collectivist extremes of fascism or communism, two collectivist-derived ideas filtered into our political consciousness. The first notion was there are certain aspects of the economy ââ?¬â?? including banking and money supply ââ?¬â?? where central planning was necessary; second, that interests of commerce and the interests of the common man were forever in opposition. Friedman’s lifelong work challenged both. His critique of the central planning model was validated as early as the Carter administration, when the “stagflation” of the late seventiesââ?¬â??high inflation and high interest rates accompanied by high unemploymentââ?¬â??confounded the Keynesians that had been directing U.S. economic policy for the preceding generation. Yet it came as no surprise to Friedman and his associates at the University of Chicago, who had warned of the consequences of high taxes, deficit spending and near-profligate pumping of the money supply for years. The second notion, that commercial and public interests are natural enemies, still underpins policy debate today. Capitalism and Freedom lays out the fundamental libertarian argument that a political environment that permits and encourages voluntary transactions between consenting parties is not only the best way to maximize the common economic good, but that it creates a more just and free society in the long term. Friedman always cautioned that the coercive power of the state, even a democratic one, is a danger to very freedoms it aims to protect. In the citizen’s personal and commercial affairs, government intervention, he argued, should be a last resort, with a high bar of justification, not a simple matter of course. In the area I cover, telecommunications, it’s a battle we see reflected in the calls for network neutrality, limits on media ownership and cable and Internet content regulations. But it applies as much to the debate over the environment, energy, health care and education. Friedman’s legacy will be his assertion that personal freedom and economic freedom are inseparable, and that any restraint on one is as much as restraint on the other. As libertarians we honor that legacy by working for a nation and society where individual choice is respected, coercion is minimal, and men and women are allowed the responsibility and opportunity to reach their fullest potential.