Almost six years ago, I marked the death of eminent economist Milton Friedman with a tribute published by The Detroit News early on Nov. 16, 2006. It is now time for me to mark his birth, which occurred 100 years ago today in Brooklyn, New York. I will do so by discussing the Friedman book and documentary series (co-authored with his wife, Rose) titled “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement,” which changed my life.
As a naïve teenager, I once thought that there were only two types of ideas: Democrat and Republican. While I could not articulate why I was uneasy with the baskets of policy proposals each political party claimed to represent, I knew I was put off by many of their ideas.
Fortunately, while enjoying a college adventure in 1986, I was introduced to Friedman’s book. I knew my life would never be the same. It inspired me to earn two economics degrees and dedicate myself to the cause of liberty. The individual had become my favorite unit of government.
“Free to Choose” was published as a coda of sorts to the Milton and Rose Friedman book titled “Capitalism and Freedom,” (published in 1962) and a companion to the Public Broadcasting Service series, also called “Free to Choose.” The book’s text was based in part on transcripts from the documentary and became the top selling non-fiction book in the United States for 1980. It has since been translated into “at least 17 languages,” according to the Friedman’s biography, “Two Lucky People.”
The video series was played over 10 weeks in 1980, the same year the book was released. The series — which was privately financed — was reportedly shown in “every major country except France and in many smaller countries,” according to Rose Friedman. Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to the reader that French television years earlier did air John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Age of Uncertainty,” which advocated for government intervention.
The Friedman series enjoyed popular success, drawing an average of some 3 million viewers per episode and outperforming other PBS fair. Humorously, the PBS affiliate in New York City — a “hotspot of American liberalism” according to Rose Friedman — made a point of airing the first episode the same night as the Sugar Bowl, presumably to suppress its viewership. The series was re-aired in 1990. Each 1990 episode was introduced by a different celebrity, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, sadly, did little as governor of California to suggest he was familiar with Friedman’s teachings. Fortunately, Mart Laar did. To give just one example of the book’s outsized influence, Laar was the first democratically elected president of Estonia and he reports using Friedman’s ideas to help build a new and free Estonia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The book is comprised of 10 chapters and argues that governments frequently do more harm than good when they attempt to improve our lives through excessive redistribution, rules and regulations. Friedman argues persuasively in his book and PBS series that a laissez-faire approach to economic matters is the best policy in most matters. Laissez-faire (which broadly translates to “let it be”) leaves more economic decisions in the hands of consumers and workers in less in the government.
Two chapters in “Free to Choose” are titled “Who Protects the Consumer?” and “Who Protects the Worker?” and in my view are worth the cost of the book. Friedman argues that it is not necessarily the government and, in fact, it is the government that is often used by institutions to extract harmful favors that hurt many people to enrich a few — all in the name of safety.
Friedman writes that occupational licensing, for instance, is frequently done in the name of protecting the consumer, but:
…the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives for the occupation in question rather than of the customers.
Licensing restricts entry into occupations. Limiting the legal supply of workers in a particular field — say plumbing — raises the price for plumbers, benefiting individuals in the industry that had lobbied for such restrictions.
I use the book to this day as a reference work for modern policy discussions, quoting from it just recently in my online essay “Governor’s Occupation Reform Proposals Sound.” This essay involved occupational license reform, a subject on which Friedman had written extensively.
Both the book and the video series continue to teach and inspire. Bob Chitester, the [then] PBS executive who helped make each possible, is now president and founder of the Free To Choose Network, which creates “accessible and entertaining media to build popular support for personal, economic and political freedom.” Among its other efforts was the creation of “Free or Equal: A Personal View” starring Johan Norberg, which follows a popular Swedish writer along the same path traveled by the Milton and Rose Friedman as they shot the “Free to Choose” documentary.
Friedman wasn’t just a popular commentator. In many ways, he re-wrote how many of us — trained economists and economic observers alike — view the world. His work on monetary economics alone (with Anna Schwartz) remains legendary. What sets Friedman apart, however, was the way in which he could make complex ideas easier to understand. That made economics — frequently the subject of dry statistical modeling — within the reach of the everyman.
I take delight that people continue to use and be inspired by his work and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
Parting thoughts: I had the good fortune of speaking to Milton Friedman on one occasion when he made a collect call to the Mackinac Center in search of my then-colleague, Matt Brouillette. Apparently, Mr. Friedman called many people collect.
I learned of Friedman’s penchant for collect calls at a 90th birthday event I was lucky enough to attend and that was held in his honor for a small group of people in Washington, D.C. That event, in 2002, was a highly personal remembrance of the man by many of those who knew and worked with him over the years.
The speaker who was effectively at the center of a tribute to Mr. Friedman was none other than President George W. Bush. I hate to say it, but his presence actually diminished the event simply because he was not in a position to warmly recall years of friendship, or squabbling, with the Nobel Laureate.
Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.