commentary appeared in The Detroit News on Nov. 16, 2006, just hours after
it was announced that Milton Friedman had died).
Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman died today
at the age of 94. He was an intellectual giant — helping mightily to shift
policy and thought away from state economic intervention and toward free people
and free-market alternatives.
Friedman’s many books,
scholarly papers, speeches and television appearances inspired countless people
to rigorously debate and articulate a vision of a truly free society. It was
Friedman’s best-selling book and Public Broadcasting Service program, "Free to
Choose," that inspired me to earn two economics degrees and join the Mackinac
Friedman was born to
immigrant parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in July 1912. He would earn degrees at
Rutgers, the University of Chicago and Columbia. Friedman later said the Great
Depression helped influence his decision to become an economist because he was
intrigued by the causes and consequences of such economic misery. He would later
answer one of the most important questions of all: Why had it occurred?
Friedman cut his
professional teeth in 1945 when he co-published a paper arguing that government
licensing laws for doctors artificially raise the cost of becoming one,
restricting supply and raising prices for consumers.
He would continue to
publish scholarly papers but began to make a name for himself in wider circles
by publishing his book "Capitalism and Freedom" in 1962. Friedman persuasively
argued for market competition in education, an all-volunteer army and greater
trade among nations.
In 1963, Friedman and
co-author Anna Schwartz published "A Monetary History of the United States,"
which showed that the Great Depression was caused by flawed monetary policy by
the Federal Reserve. According to the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, Federal
Reserve officials were so unnerved by Friedman’s work that they "discontinued
their policy of releasing minutes from the board’s meetings to the public." They
also hired a scholar to write a rebuttal, but it had little impact. Friedman’s
analysis remains the standard on America’s monetary history.
Friedman was in
Michigan on Oct. 14, 1976, when he learned he had won the Nobel Prize in
Economics. Friedman was traveling from Chicago to a press conference at the
Detroit Athletic Club to tout Proposal C, a ballot initiative to cap what the
state of Michigan could spend in a given year, when the announcement was made
from Stockholm, Sweden.
"When we got to the
press center, I was surprised by the number of photographers and reporters in
the parking lot," Friedman wrote later. "I knew that Proposal C was important
but didn’t think my campaigning for it deserved that much attention." Friedman
quickly learned of the honor from the reporters in attendance.
Proposal C would fail
that year, but a version of it would later pass as the Headlee Amendment, which
restricts state revenue to 9.49 percent of personal income from all state
Throughout his life,
Friedman advanced his ideas with both intelligence and wit. When addressing a
crowd of academics, he spoke as a professor would speak to fellow scholars. When
speaking to the public, he simplified his arguments. His ability to link
abstract theory with concrete detail and wrap both in velvet for his audience
made the man an irresistible draw.
traveling by car during one of his many overseas travels, Friedman spotted
scores of road builders moving earth with shovels. When he asked why powerful
equipment wasn’t used instead of so many laborers, his host told him it was to
keep unemployment low. If they used tractors, fewer people would have jobs was
his host’s logic.
"Then why don’t you
give them spoons?" Friedman inquired. It was quintessential Friedman: Employment
doesn’t make us wealthy — production does.
Milton Friedman, a
great friend of freedom, rewrote the way economists and others look at economics
and the world around them. He will be missed.
Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal
Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to
reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the
Center are properly cited.