(Editor's note: This was written in preparation for the Mackinac Center's celebration of "Friedman Legacy for Freedom Day," taking place Friday, July 29, 2011 at the Henry Ford Museum.)
On the bookshelf of an average American patriot, it would be more common to see a collection of Ronald Reagan biographies than books on the life of Milton Friedman. Ask a person on the street who they think holds the most power in America and you have a good chance of hearing “the president.” However, the president is a single man whose power is limited by checks, balances and, depending on his character, his personal desire for re-election. One free man with an idea can prove influential and limitless without holding public office. Milton Friedman was that man.
Behind every great success lies a great inspiration. For the millions of conservatives who venerate Reagan, they are also (wittingly or unwittingly) admiring the impact Friedman made on the mentality of his times and on Reagan himself. That the political climate even allowed a man with Reagan’s platform to be elected was due in part to Friedman’s work, starting as early as the failed Barry Goldwater presidential campaign, which began calling for a return to laissez-faire economic principles when the position was extreme. This movement gained momentum, culminating in Reagan’s election.
In 1980, Reagan appointed Friedman to the select Economic Policy Coordinating Committee. As a team they applied Adam Smith’s concepts, and the economy became a freer and more prosperous place; regulations were limited, inflation was brought under control, taxes were cut, and government began to find its place -— on the sidelines. Reagan’s policies are widely recognized as bringing about the second-longest peacetime economic expansion in the history of the United States. The key to bringing this prosperity was the wisdom of those advisors who, like Friedman, truly understood economic policy. Later, Friedman was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Friedman didn’t only have an influence at home in America; his ideas brought significant changes around the world. Former prime minister of Estonia Mart Laar, who is credited with bringing Estonia’s rapid economic development in the 1990s, said that the only book on economics he read before his election was Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” Under Laar, Estonia became the first country to institute a flat tax, which was very successful. While speaking about Friedman’s “Free to Chose” TV series, Reagan mentioned that the principles Friedman expressed had also helped inspire the Polish drive for freedom.
Although politicians come and go and their ideas can change with the political winds, the protection and presentation of sound economic ideas remains a vital tenant of freedom. Politicians are only in power for a few terms at most, but influencing the electorate and swaying public opinion toward freedom is a full time job with no term limit. This position in the cause of freedom is taken today by think tanks like the Mackinac Center. They, like Friedman, publish articles, give lectures and research responsible policy changes, sharing their findings publicly.
As an intern at a think tank, I am inspired by Milton Friedman. Looking at his example, I know that as a responsible citizen, I can live an influential life of loving and sharing liberty without needing to be elected. My job is to provide, present and protect the principles which will bring about the next age of prosperity.