Milton Friedman; Freedom’s Greatest Advocate

(presentation to the Liberta Society; Buenos Aires 7/29/2021)

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While Liberalism, in its classic 19th Century sense, is suffering a decline as the State extends its dominion over free markets around the world, the crucial linkage between Freedom and Free Markets for Liberty remains. Its greatest spokesman during the the 20th Century was Professor Milton Friedman. Even in Argentina where Government controls have eroded the potential for economic growth and a rising standard of living, the kernel of Friedman’s ideas remains, hopefully to re-emerge and energize the Argentine economy and the freedom of its people.

In preparing these notes, I have the good fortune to be spending a leisurely vacation in Greece (now in Thessaloniki, but I wrote this in Athens), the home of the first “democratic society” of which we have some considerable records. Ironically, the world is recovering from a hideous, international “plague” (Covid 19) which has limited our freedoms in so many ways, while enabling Governments to intervene in our ability to freely associate, to innovate, to travel, to teach, to express our ideas, to engage in free commerce as well as many other activities, all in the name of “protecting” us! Secondly, we might note that Athens was doubly set back at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war by a “Plague,” (not yet quite clearly identified) which crippled her response to the Spartan attacks and ultimately claimed the life of it most noted political leader, Pericles. I point that out because in my subsequent remarks about Professor Milton Freedom, the question of political leadership is not fully treated as it must be if we are to fully understand the pathways he outlined for us over his long career.

I had the good fortune of being a student at Chicago during Professor Friedman’s prime years in the early 1960’s when many of his ideas were often ridiculed both by other professional economists and by Government officials who had rather Statist views on the role of Government, descending from the then prevalence of Keynesian ideas left over from the last great experiments in Government (The Great Depression and the end of WWII.)

The first edition of Milton Friedman’s luminary work, Capitalism and Freedom, came out in 1962 in the midst of my graduate years at Chicago…and we know that it was not well received at the time. In fact, most of us who were totally overwhelmed by Friedman’s scope of interests in economics and politics, and his well noted analytical capabilities, found much of Capitalism and Freedom as “old news” already featured in some ways by his lectures in Price Theory—which we all took—and his efforts to change the focus of monetary policy. (Via his monumental book with Anna Schwartz, The Monetary History of the United States was published in 1963).

Another irony struck me as I reviewed the Forward (by Binyamin Appelbaum) to Capitalism and Freedom in his statement that capitalism “had fallen into some disfavor,” at the time. (1962). Capitalism and Freedom came out during the great fascination by many students at the time with the alleged success of Soviet Communism (e.g.Sputnik) and some mystic appreciation of what appeared to be the political success in China of the CCPC under Mao Tze tung. The brutalities and exterminations of millions that had occurred during the earlier years of these regimes were not widely documented until Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West in the late 1970’s.

I mention this chronology precisely because we are witnessing a second episode of Capitalism’s “disfavor” in the United States, and also in many other countries. Witness the changes in Latin America in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. And, in the USA, where Capitalism has raised our standard of living to its highest level in history–and reduced poverty by immense amounts wherever it has been given a chance to flourish. If you watch the US Media or read the majority of its newspapers, you wouldn’t know that. It would appear that “Capitalism and Freedom” has failed and failed badly! When we see the epithet of “Racism” cast about so freely by young people, often from middle class backgrounds, you have to wonder just what kind of education has disabled their knowledge of U.S. history; their awareness of brutal coercion in many non-capitalist societies; and, their understanding of the actual data of economic progress over the last 60 years since Milton Friedman published “Capitalism and Freedom.”

Milton Friedman has often been cited as the outstanding economist of the 20th Century. As far as his technical contributions, there is no dispute that his efforts in the 1940s-50s-60s-70s illuminated much of macroeconomics and still continue to bear fruit. His policy analyses of housing, of the virtues of Charter Schools as a market based educational alternative, of the flexibility offered to macro policies through elimination of exchange controls and his long advocacy of abolishing restrictions to international trade are part of the lexicon of freer markets and freer economies.

Normally, a man who covered such a range of social policy should be satisfied with such a menu of accomplishment, but I think the Milton Friedman that we knew in the 1990’s and 2000’s was not completely finished with both his analysis of current conditions nor his vivid assertions that free markets were essential to political freedom. Let me amplify those thoughts a bit.

When we look around the world—particularly at the nominally “democratic states,”— that is those states that are not governed by some form of totalitarian regime, we do observe a growing division between people who believe they are “free” and those who believe they are “controlled” by some amorphous and ill-defined cabal of special interests. We see this in the “Black Lives Matter” movement; in the looting and burning of certain sections of American Cities often by protestors willing to turn their demonstrations into violence. We see it from supporters of our previous President who attacked the Congress in a physically violent protest in which several died. We see it in protests in Europe and Eastern Europe on both the so-called “left” and on the “right.” It almost appears as if we are watching history repeat itself.

Marx claimed that history repeats, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Should we think of what is going on today in nominally democratic states a farce? Perhaps, the second time is a tragedy as well? Or, is there some inherent connection between the seeming success of capitalism in the nominally democratic states and the discontent of our younger generation who frequently storm against “Capitalism,” the very system that has given them such enlarged economic opportunities and that has stood at the base of their political freedom.

In my view, there is a common theme that resonates in our current age of discontent. It is what I would call the “Doctrine of Fairness.” Apparently, the fact that free markets generate immense outpourings of innovation and that markets reward such innovations so well in an age of globalization, are principle ingredients to the Discontent of many. Invidious comparisons are drawn by many individuals between their own personal economic status and the highly publicized outcomes of the very wealthy. The latter, for a multitude of reasons, have gone far beyond the rewards of simple labor income. Indeed, much of their wealth and the income from that wealth is financial, stemming from their ownership of intellectual and physical capital. The wealthy cannot spend but a fraction of what their human and physical capital produces and their lifestyles are far different from the “average” family. Of course, as we know, in economies whose markets are much less than free, the “rich” do proportionately even better than do the “rich” in much less restricted markets, but that fact is scarcely addressed in public media. One has only to look at the kleptocracies around the world for a demonstration of that kind of inequality.

Furthermore, it appears to the Media and to the “common man” that the political clout by the wealthy with bureaucrats and senior politicians is far greater than those whose income derives solely from Labor. The implication of that observation, whether it is true or not, we can put on the back burner for now, is that “special interests” get served far faster and more thoroughly than the “mass” of the people. That observation takes me back to Ancient Greece, and the troubled history of the first great democracy, Athens.

Any fair reading of Athenian politics in the 5th Century BC shows that while it is true that there were always “leading” families and individuals who had closer access to important political and governing figures, Athenian politics was in fact heavily influenced, even dominated by the mass of Athenians who had significant political rights rather than significant property. One can even argue that it was the “Mass” that forced the bad choices of Leaders and Strategies (Sicily for example) that led to the ultimate defeat of Athens. Athens never recovered from its failed campaign in Sicily against Syracuse.

Applebaum in his notes brings out the fact that in his later years the intimate connection that Friedman had initially drawn between the necessity for Free Markets to undergird Freedom itself became perhaps less clear to him. Yet, the clear distinction between a totalitarian state and the freedom of those who are so ruled by such a state and a freely elected democratic state remains. But within democratic states, there are infinite variations in content and in style over property rights and free markets. Some democratic states are freer than others. Fairness of outcomes differs between countries. In some states, overwhelmed by the numbers who are clearly POOR, restricting the freedom of others and changing the distribution of output in a significant way becomes a more appealing choice than allowing extremely capable and industrious people to rise into the class of great wealth. The political outcome is to restrict by taxation or by Government spending programs the growth of the economy as a whole. Furthermore, and this is an area that Milton Friedman did not much opine about publicly, the outcome in different states is heavily influenced by the quality and the understanding of the leaders chosen by the voters.

Inevitably, the poorest voters—who by numbers are the largest class of voters—are persuaded they can have “Guns and Butter,” to use the old antonyms. As a result, politicians compete to spend Other People’s Money in order to gain or retain political office. They change tax laws and conditions of competition attempting to legislate “Fairness of Outcome.” Many of these measures limit the growth in output and often do not even readjust the outcomes to be more “FAIR.” However, appearances count more than substance. Voters are influenced by Presentation, not by actual data.

Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time,” but a closely competitive political society doesn’t need the vote of all of the people. It just has to move the margin a bit. Binary voting outcomes are unlike market outcomes. Markets move output by the amount of dollars spent on the output—proportional representation so to speak. Voting outcomes are binary. One votes for A or B but political trades among the political winners can create a working majority of interest. What may count more in a binary choice system is moving the percentages slightly because then the “winner” can restructure the game. The Winner can become a virtual totalitarian. The bottom line of this kind of analysis is the old wisdom contained in the writers of the The Federalist Papers concerning the danger of a Tyranny of the Majority. It always exists in a democracy. Once a majority controls the Government, it can change the rules for political competition.

In my judgment Milton Friedman was the greatest spokesman for Freedom in my lifetime. He lived a very long and extremely productive intellectual life that had many spinoffs. He never gave up his defense of Freedom and the importance of Free Markets in enhancing and protecting that Freedom. However, the implementation of Freedom also requires good leadership ===leadership that is willing to see through the mist of “Fairness”. Politicians and bureaucrats focus on Now; good leadership looks for good outcomes in the Future. We have a deep need for another Milton Friedman to show us how that linkage can be achieved and how to choose leaders that will stay on the right path to that future.

Let me conclude with a few takeaways. In short, Liberals have a big load to lift!

Capitalism and Freedom is an elegant and persuasive argument for Freedom as opposed to growing Government Control… but if we look around the world, LIBERALISM IS NOW LOSING

Whether we look at nominally democratic governments or those governments that are explicitly totalitarian, THE STATE IS WINNING

As empirical economists trained by Milton Friedman, we should be asking why are we losing?

My own conclusion, not necessarily documented by clever and much needed research, is that people seem to accept several major premises:

  1. The functions of Government have grown exponentially over time: Explicit control over individual behavior is vastly preferred to the imperceptible functioning of markets.
  2. Human behavior seems to be heavily influenced by Risk Aversion. People are more prone to the allure that Government can fix the lottery characteristics of human outcomes —in spite of the vast empirical evidence of Government failure to contrive Equality of outcome! Governments can help Equality of Opportunity — they may not be able to create Equality of Outcome.
  3. A survey of Friedman’s critiques of Government intervention leads to some severe disappointments: public housing, social security, professional licensure, minimum wages, the end of the corporate income tax and assignment of undistributed earnings to shareholders as taxable income, the end of the inheritance tax and establishment of a flat income tax, ending tariffs and quotas, farm subsidies, and clearly, monetary authority rules vs bureaucratic authority.

a. volunteer army— not mentioned in CAPITALISM AND FREEDOM
b. some progress on Charter Schools with small progress on use of public resources for charter schools
c. the negative income tax


Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom (p. ix). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.