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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Milton Friedman - proponent of individual freedom

A recent Sunday NYT had a birthday tribute to MF written by Ben Stein. In discussing the importance of individual freedom to progress, I sometimes forget to recommend the writings of Doctor Friedman as an example of very accessible prose that make the case. I will also need to revisit his Monetary History of the United States for my own edification. Below are some excerpts from the tribute: the top of the totem pole for their contributions to man's progress and to human understanding comes Milton Friedman, and his wife, Rose D. Friedman.

In about 1965, the whole world was worshiping at the altar of John F. Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Professor Friedman, in his writing, said that neither was a fitting question in a free society. People should be asking what they can do for themselves and their friends and communities, not how they can serve the state or what they could get as wards of the state.

This became the beginning of Professor Friedman's 1980 PBS series "Free to Choose," also about the role of individual freedom in creating a prosperous, politically free society. At a time when the prevailing liberal ethos was all about the state, planning and direction from on high, Professor Friedman and his wife stood up for the glory of the rights and choices of the individual. From the individual, not from the state, came creativity, progress, freedom, prosperity. From the state came oppression and stagnation. While (just as a humble opinion) I see the state having a vital role in securing freedom for minorities, defending the society against aggression, and delivering the mail, Professor Friedman's basic point is certainly correct. (He saw major roles for the state in enforcing antitrust laws and insuring banks and in other areas, too.)

THERE are a few really great names in standing up for the individual in a world where the beautiful people always seem to want the state to tell us how to live - William F. Buckley; Robert L. Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page; and Mr. Reagan - but they all pale before the brain power and ingenuity of Milton and Rose Friedman. If we have a free society today, if we have avoided anything close to another Great Depression, if we have prosperity and fairly stable prices, we owe much of it to Milton Friedman. If we have a free market economy that will yet pull us through our many travails and will be the beacon of hope to the whole world, if we still have a majority of the economy not in the hands of the state, much of the credit goes to Milton Friedman.

I've written elsewhere about the political disease of statism. This was one manifestation of the methodological flaw that infected the social sciences known as collectivism - part of the abuse of reason. As I recently saw written (wish I could remember where) : "collectivism=slavery; individual freedom=life." Milton Friedman is definitely for life!


Hey Skipper said...

To which list of true liberals you might add FA Hayek, who wrote "Road to Serfdom."

Howard said...

hey skipper:
I am a HUGE Hayek fan - having read most of his works. There is a running bet amongst my wife and kids - if someone engages me in a conversation related to economics or something tangentially related, how long it will take until I invoke the name Hayek.