It is never an easy thing when someone that you admire dies. It gives rise to myriad different feelings: appreciation for their inspiration, sadness for the loss of their presence and reflection on their legacy, to name but a few.
These were my feelings in part when I learned of the death of Milton Friedman. Dr. Friedman died at the age of 94 at his home in San Fransisco. Here is the press release from the University of Chicago, with links to other news stories on Friedman's death.
It is easy with a person like Milton Friedman to chalk up all of the accolades. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics. Co-Founder of the Chicago School of Economics. Advisor to leaders around the world from Great Britain and the United States to China and the former Eastern Bloc. Author of tens of books and hundreds of articles on every topic from money supply to school choice, from narcotics policy to consumption, from taxes to military conscription.
It is also easy to point to the changes that a person like Milton Friedman caused in thinking and policy. Countering the Keynesians, Friedman asserted that aggregate demand in an economy does not indeed fall with rising economic fortunes. In other words, Friedman presents a convincing argument that people do not save more when they make more and that demand rises regardless of the overall fortunes of a given economic system. He also famously argued that inflation precedes, rather than follows, changes in the overall economy. This argument, if general trends in the economy are considered, turned out to be spot on. To remedy this, he proposed what became known as the monetarist theory of money supply, which calls for control of money supply which in turn controls large-scale economic factors. Again, this proved to be nothing short of prophetic in its simplicity.
It is also easy, in pursuing these aformentioned easy tasks, to forget the larger implications of Friedman's thought and concept of economics and society. Yet it is in this field where he has been, in my mind, the most profound.
Milton Friedman saw society not in terms of the collective, but in terms of individuals. These individuals are free actors, or they should be: there is often much that stands in their way. Road blocks to the free exercise of human desire and will are erected by the artificial states that claim power over the lives of people. In an attempt to secure their power, they play the role of parent, schoolmaster and policeman, trying to limit the ability of the individual to act as they deem best for their interests.
What arises from such socioeconomic limits? An inherently unfree society that holds the synthetic state in higher esteem than the natural rights of the individual. Governments can only exist if they hold coercive power over the mass of people that they govern; this power is rarely exercised with the best interests of the individual in mind because they run counter to the inherently paranoid nature of state power. In other words, most states as they are could not handle a society of individuals completely free to choose their destiny.
Yet this is perhaps the only societal arrangement where the full rights and dignity of human beings can be protected and exercised. Friedman was not an anarchist, nor am I. The only purpose of the state is to provide a deterrent for those who would infringe on the rights of others. This small enforcement power, excepting all else, is the only proper function for the state. It is not regulation, enforced morality, prohibition, coercion or intrusion. The state should be the servant of the individual, not the master.
Friedman was an unabashed optimist, and so am I. He believed that people are smarter, better informed and at their core more attuned to their desires than any state ever could be. He believed that a society of free people would be not only orderly but humane. I believe this too, and it is through no small contribution of Milton Friedman.
Can we ever live in the world that Friedman envisioned? I certainly hope so, because that is the world in which I want to live. Wouldn't you? We would all do well to understand Milton Friedman and his legacy, for he believed in us to build a more free (and therefore just) society.
Thanks, Dr. Friedman. You helped to show us the way.
Will we be brave enough to take it?