Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Great Loss

Milton Friedman, recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Economic Science, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, recipient of the 1988 Presidential Medal of Freedom, a hero of Frodo's, one of the strongest influences on my own political and economic philospohies, and arguably the staunchest modern advocate of Freedom (both economic and personal), died this morning at the age of 94.

A couple years ago, Frodo worked at the Libertarian booth at our town's annual street fair. The night before the fair, Frodo and I stayed up late making t-shirts for each of us and our kids to wear to the fair. My shirt bore a quote from Dr. Friedman:

Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.

Tax Freedom Day, the date on which we stop working for the government and begin working for ourselves, is said to have its origins with Dr. Friedman. He wrote in one of his 1974 Newsweek columns that the United States should have a national holiday called "Personal Independence Day" to celebrate:

...that day in the year when we stop working to pay the expenses of the government, and start working to pay for the items we severally and individually choose in light of our own needs and desires. In 1929, that holiday would have come on Feb 12; today it would come about May 30; if present trends were to continue it would coincide with July 4.

Sadly, according to Americans for Tax Reform, Dr. Friedman's prediction was all too accurate. In 2005, the group determined that "cost of government day" occurred in the second week of July.

In his bestselling book Free To Choose, co-written with his wife, economist Rose Director Friedman, Dr. Friedman cements the connection between economic freedom and personal freedom:

Economic freedom is an essential requisite for political freedom. By enabling people to cooperate with one another without coercion or central direction, it reduces the area over which political power is exercised. In addition, by dispersing power, the free market provides an offset to whatever concentration of political power may arise. The combination of economic and politcal power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.

Milton Friedman on The Power of the Market (video)

Dr. Friedman did not limit his defense of personal freedom to those areas obviously affected by economics, however. In the 1990 version of his PBS series Free to Choose, he makes clear his view on America's government school system and who should be in charge of children's education:

Milton Friedman on Education (video)

(this is my favorite Friedman moment ever)

In regard to education, Dr. Friedman and his wife put their money where their consciences were and started the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice which supports parental choice in education through educational choice in the form of school vouchers... a concept Dr. Friedman originally introduced in his book Economics and Public Interest in 1955.

The rights that Dr. Friedman worked so hard to defend were not just those that benefited

the individual. He purported that total freedom includes not only the right to work to make one's self successful, but also to harm one's self. Man has the right to be stupid as well as to be wise.

"The reign of tears is over. The slums will be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

That is how Billy Sunday, noted evangelist and leading crusader aginst Demon Rum, greeted the onset of Prohibition in 1920, enacted in a burst of moral righteousness at the end of the First World War. That episode is a stark reminder of where drives to protect us from ourselves can lead.

Prohibition was imposed for our own good. Alcohol is a dangerous substance. More lives are lost each year from alcohol than from all the dangerous substances the FDA controls put together. But where did Prohibtion lead?
New prisons and jails had to be built to house the criminals spawned by converting the drinking of spirits into a crime against the state. Al Capone, Bugs Moran became notorious for their exploits - murder, extortion, hijacking, bootlegging.Who were their customers? Respectable citizens who would never themselves have approved or engaged in, the activites that Al Capone and his fellow gangsters made infamous. They simply wanted a drink. In order to have a drink, they had to break the law. Prohbition didn't stop drinking. It did convert a lot of otherwise law-obedient citizens into lawbreakers. It did suppress many of the disciplinary forces of the market that ordinarily protect the consumer from shoddy, adulterated, and dangerous products. It did corrupt the minions of the law and create a decadent moral climate. It did not stop the consumption of alcohol.

If the government is to try and ban private consumption of alcohol and tobacco, it must surely ban such activities as hang-gliding, skiing, rock-climbing and so on. Where should it stop? Rugby? American Football? Ice Hockey?

Insofar as the government has information not generally available about the merits or demerits of the items we ingest or the activities we engage in, let it give us the information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives.

- from Free to Choose

Edward H. Crane, president of the CATO Institute, summarized Dr. Friedman's contributions better than I ever could:

Here's a guy who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in monetary theory and he was a great Chicagoan, a great empiricist and theoretician of economics. But ultimately, what Milton believed in was human liberty and he took great joy in trying to promote that concept....Milton would say, "Maybe I did well and maybe I led the battle but nobody ever said we were going to win this thing at any point in time. Eternal vigilance is required and there have to be people who step up to the plate, who believe in liberty, and who are willing to fight for it." ...In my view he was the greatest champion of human liberty in my lifetime, certainly in the 20th century. And he didn’t slack off in the 21st century.

Milton Friedman


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