Milton Friedman, born 100 years ago today, was many things: a groundbreaking economist, winner of the Nobel prize in his discipline, an adviser to such heads of state as had the wisdom to seek his counsel. He was a superlative scholar and thinker — he invented the statistical technique of sequential sampling along the way, because he needed it — but his most important role was that of teacher: not only of his students at the University of Chicago, but of the public at large through his Free to Choose television series and books. His economics was no dismal science, but a rigorous framework undergirding the great love of his intellectual life: liberty.
Friedman’s story is so deeply American that it practically smells of apple pie: His parents were Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine, who settled in Brooklyn and set up a dry-goods business. Their son was a gifted mathematician and enrolled at Rutgers with the aim of becoming an actuary; under the influence of two economics professors, he decided to pursue another course in life, and the insurance industry’s loss was the world’s gain. He began his graduate studies in economics in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, and those bleak years forever weighed heavy upon his memory. It probably was the experience of the Great Depression that gave Friedman’s economics its distinctive flavor: His work in the end was not about numbers, data, or equations, but about the alleviation of unnecessary human suffering and the removal of barriers to human flourishing. As he put it: “The only cases in recorded history in which the masses have escaped grinding poverty is where they have had capitalism and largely free trade.”
Friedman’s economics was in many ways an economics of the poor. As early as 1955 he was publishing articles about the failure of government-monopoly schools to properly educate the children of the poor and marginalized, and he proposed a system of vouchers to allow the disadvantaged to pursue the same educational opportunities that their better-off neighbors enjoyed. Liberals grimaced to hear him say it, but he correctly identified the minimum-wage requirement as “one of the most, if not the most anti-blacklaw on the statute books,” and referred to the elevated black unemployment rate as “a disgrace and scandal.” He spent much of his public life arguing that “there has never been a more effective machine for the elimination of poverty than the free-enterprise system and a free market.” By contrast, he described the welfare state as “a machine for producing poor people.” His most influential work (conducted together with his colleague Anna Jacobson Schwartz) was on the causes of the Great Depression, making a powerful case that it was not market failure but government policy — specifically Federal Reserve policy — that turned a normal economic downturn into an epic catastrophe.
He was a man who knew how to ask questions: Challenged in 1979 by Phil Donahue to justify a free-enterprise system predicated on “greed,” Friedman turned to the case of the non-capitalist countries: “You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? . . . Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest?
He was unstinting in his criticism, but he was a famously happy warrior. His wit was one of his great pedagogical tools. Inspecting a government-run canal-building project in Asia, he noted that the workers were using shovels and wheelbarrows instead of bulldozers and earth-moving equipment, and was informed by his guide that using shovels meant more jobs for the workers. “Then why not use spoons?” Friedman asked.
It is in no small part the result of Friedman’s work that the ravages of inflation are in the United States today remembered rather like the ravages of polio: a fading impression from an increasingly remote history. Those with short memories would do well to remember that, until the election of Ronald Reagan, whom Friedman tutored on monetary policy, persistent inflation was considered a more or less normal and permanent part of life.