Happy Birthday, Milton Friedman

Economist Milton Friedman would be 101 today. His passing several years ago was lamentable but many of his ideas — involving monetary policy and price theory, for instance — are immortalized in his many scholarly books, academic papers and tributes by fellow scholars who knew him best.

Friedman was born the son of immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned mathematics and economics degrees from Rutgers University before obtaining a master’s degree in the economic science from the University of Chicago and holds a doctorate from Columbia in the same field.

Friedman has been the greatest of my intellectual heroes, a stature he has held since 1986 when I first read his powerful book, “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement.” The book was a hit with readers and it powered its way to the top of the New York Times best seller list in 1980. The book was published in concert with his Public Broadcasting Service series by the same name.

“Free to Choose” was about economic liberty and public policy and was written for the everyman. His ability to communicate with anyone was a trait that served him well. If you were a fellow professorial egghead, he could speak egghead. If not, he could happily distill complex notions into digestible bites.

What is the very best of Friedman? Fans all have their own personal lists of their favorite Milton Friedman work, but I’ll offer mine, as well as important themes that Friedman brought up that we grapple with today.

  1. Free choice. “Free to Choose” changed my life while I was still a teenager and made me realize there were policy ideas that were not Democratic or Republican. The video series is worth your time, too, an example of which is at the bottom of this essay.
  1. Monetary research. Friedman coined the phrase, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. …” In 1976, he was awarded the Nobel prize in Economic Sciences, in part for his work on “… monetary history and theory. …”

In 1963, Friedman, with co-author Anna Schwartz, published “A Monetary History of the United States.” This seminal work remains a classic in the field of economics. It is probably impossible for the average graduate student in economics to avoid being exposed to it, in varying degrees.

The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics wrote that the Federal Reserve Bank officials were so unnerved by Friedman’s analysis of the bank and its work that they “discontinued their policy of releasing minutes from the board’s meeting to the public.”

  1. Price theory. Friedman published his book, “Price Theory,” based on notes he used while teaching the subject.

Despite Friedman’s belief that it was roughly composed, it turned out to be such a popular work that versions of it have been translated into Portuguese, Spanish, German, French and Japanese, according to Friedman’s co-biography, “Two Lucky People,” which he wrote with wife, Rose.

  1. Social responsibility. Friedman’s essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business,” is an excellent rejoinder to many — including captains of particular corporations — on the true social responsibility of business.

This topic was addressed in his book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” and a 1970 article in New York Times Magazine. His conclusion can be summarized best by his quote:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

  1. Magazine essays. Friedman wrote a Newsweek column every few weeks, totaling more than 300 over an 18 year period, starting in 1966.

These columns surprised the Friedman’s to at least one degree. They found the work — written for the layman — being cited in peer-reviewed journals “and technical economics books.” That was not their intention, but it turned out to be an interesting turn of events.

  1. School choice. As far back as 1955, the Friedmans thought that greater parental choice in schooling was necessary.

In “Free to Choose,” Friedman laid out the case for a voucher system that would wrest control from government schooling bureaucracies. If money for education flowed to parents in the form of a voucher, parents could be free to choose the best and safest education for their children, and not one that was simply imposed by government.

Today the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice works to carry out that vision.

Milton Friedman was an intellectual giant and arguably the most influential scholars of the 20th Century. While Milton Friedman is gone, his ideas live on, and this author is happy to reflect on just some of those while marking the 101st anniversary of his extraordinary life.

 Michael LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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