July 31, 2013

Milton Friedman at 101–wisdom, warnings, and hope

By Milton Friedman at 101–wisdom, warnings, and hope

Today marks 101 years since Milton Friedman was born. That’s 404 quarters of economic activity, or 5,252 weekend issues of the Wall Street Journal, or 36,890 days of Dow Jones Industrial Average fluctuations.

However you measure it, it’s a lot of time. For about 26,663 of those days (73 years), Friedman was a student, practitioner, and teacher of economics, eventually winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and working as President Reagan’s economic advisor. Friedman also wrote prolifically, publishing more than a dozen books, scores of scholarly articles, and hundreds of columns for Newsweek, not to mention the many other pieces he wrote for general audiences.

But as important as numbers were to Friedman, the numbers certainly don’t do him justice. We’ve already written about how, even when critiquing government, his wit was matched by a remarkable sense of humor. Others have described him as a charismatic debater and (at five feet tall) a “giant of liberty.”

Friedman, like giants of liberty before him, made some severe predictions about the dangers of an ever-growing government. In 1978, he warned that continuing to enlarge “the scope of government and government control” would inevitably lead to two results: “financial crisis” and “loss of freedom.” Like F. A. Hayek before him, Friedman had seen collectivist governments rising and falling, and he worried that the United States would follow in their footsteps rather than learning from the past. Unfortunately, history seems to have proved him right.

But Friedman was also hopeful, even optimistic at times. He rejected the notion that trying to return to smaller government would be a quixotic attempt to “turn the clock back”:

“[T]he thing that always amuses me about that argument is that the people who make it . . . are themselves busily at work trying to turn [the clock] back to the 18th century. . . . The real question is not whether you are turning the clock back or forward but whether you are doing the right thing.”

It’s been 14,758 days since PLF was founded, and government is larger than we’d like it to be, but we’ve also had some great successes as we fight for liberty. So happy birthday, Milton Friedman! Today we’re especially thankful that we can learn from the mark you’ve left on history: your wisdom, your warnings, and your hope.

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