Friedman, Freedom and All That Jazz

(Note: On July 31, 2008, the Mackinac Center’s Students for a Free Economy (SFE) is partnering with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation to celebrate what would have been Milton Friedman’s 96th Birthday. SFE will be taking 20 college students to Chicago to hear Friedman’s former colleagues talk about his life and work and to enjoy a presentation on the connection between blues, jazz and freedom — as well as enjoy some of Chicago’s musical fare.)

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The late Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman wrote: "The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government."

If this is true of painting, it is certainly true of two art forms that share a unique American heritage — jazz and blues music.

Though the connection between Friedman’s great economic mind and these two musical genres may seem vague, the motivations that guided Friedman’s life and work are rooted in the same principles that motivate jazz and blues music — freedom and choice — and, like his economic theories, both emanated from Chicago to the world.

In fact, the blues and jazz styles made famous in Chicago initially evolved under the harshest of circumstances. For the blues, many of Chicago’s musicians spent their formative years eking out impoverished existences in the racially segregated Mississippi Delta before joining the Great Migration to find industrial and manufacturing work in northern cities. Likewise, jazz musicians came to Chicago from mostly hardscrabble surroundings and invigorated the Windy City’s clubs, speakeasies and dancehalls with a celebration of newfound economic freedom expressed in musical virtuosity.

Incidentally, Dr. Friedman spent most of his career studying and teaching at the University of Chicago. It was there that his sphere of influence become prevalent and his ideas about free-market capitalism began to spread across the globe and have a direct impact on economic policies. Friedman was the figurehead of the "Chicago Boys," a collection of economists that preached the benefits of competition and choice to a world that was caught in a cycle of failed government interventions.

From Chicago, the sound economic ideas in support of greater freedom rippled across the globe, resulting in a dramatic shift away from central planning. Friedman was instrumental in eliminating the military draft, and his influence helped break runaway inflation and create the impetus for deregulation of the economy.

Similarly, the sounds that emanated from such Chicago labels as Chess, Nessa, Delmark, Cobra and the Chicago subsidiary of Okeh Records eventually beat a path throughout the world, exploding into the blues and jazz booms that roughly spanned the years from the mid-1920s into the 1960s.

Absent this musical migration, music lovers would have missed out on Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon and a seemingly endless list of artistic progeny that includes Englishmen Eric Clapton, Peter Green and John Mayall; and Americans Mike Bloomfield, Steve Miller and Lonnie Mack. The roster of jazz musicians who found their way to Carl Sandburg’s "city of the big shoulders" is equally impressive as it includes Louis Armstrong, Bix Biederbecke, Lester Bowie and a raft of others.

Friedman may or may not have known about Chicago blues and jazz competitions known as "cutting matches," wherein two instrumentalists would duel musically. Perhaps most notable of these cutting matches was the legendary face-offs between blues guitarists Buddy Guy and Otis Rush in the early 1960s. Regardless the outcome of their battles, the attendant audiences witnessed many staggering displays of six-string mastery and received maximum value for their entertainment dollar.

The foundation that bears Friedman’s name is dedicated to the issue that most moved Milton and his fellow economist wife Rose — school choice. The Friedmans believed that the only way for children, particularly low-income children, to escape poor education leading to a dim future was by giving parents and children more choices. Milton pioneered the idea of school vouchers, which seemed radical at the time but is in many ways a commonsense idea — take the money government spends on schooling and, rather than paying it to the schools, give it to the parents directly, allowing them the opportunity to purchase the education they see best for their child at the school of their choice. Friedman knew that only competition would deliver the high-quality education that children need.

Whether it’s working to change public policy, or expressing oneself through music, the desire for freedom is indeed a great source of innovation and motivation — and nowhere in the United States is that sense of artistic and economic determination so strong than Chicago, the city that inspired Sandburg to write in 1916: "Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive...."


Isaac M. Morehouse is director of campus leadership and Bruce Edward Walker is manager of communications for the Property Rights Network 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 authors and the Center are properly cited.

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