Notes & Comments December 2006
Milton Friedman, 1912-2006
On the passing of the great economist.
The death of the economist Milton Friedman last month at the age of ninety-four was commemorated at length across the country, indeed, across the world. We will add only a brief footnote regarding the cultural implications of Friedman’s work. Friedman was above all an eloquent apostle of freedom and, like his comrade-in-intellectual-arms Friedrich Hayek, he had a deep insight into the inextricable relation between economic freedom and political freedom. In an introduction he wrote in the early 1970s for a German edition of Hayek’s classic The Road to Serfdom, Friedman noted that “the free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving political democracy.” This insight has always been anathema to the Left, whose dream of egalitarianism demanded statist control of economic life and a policy of redistribution of wealth—that is, a policy of control, not freedom. Their fundamental mistake—one of them, anyway—was in believing that political or spiritual freedom could be salvaged absent economic freedom. Friedman, again like Hayek—and like Tocqueville before them—saw deeply into the folly of this error. Writing in the early 1960s, Friedman argued that, contrary to popular opinion, “economic freedom, in and of itself, is an extremely important part of total freedom.”
The reason it is important to emphasize this point is because intellectuals in particular have a strong bias against regarding this aspect of freedom as important. They tend to express contempt for what they regard as material aspects of life and to regard their own pursuit of allegedly higher values as on a different plane of significance and as deserving special attention.
Higher those aspirations may be, or perhaps they are only less connected to reality. But the fundamental—we almost said, the perpetual—mistake perpetrated by the chattering classes is to think that those aspirations can be meaningfully pursued absent the reality of economic freedom. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek took one of his epigraphs from Hilaire Belloc: “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”
The socialist and his intellectual brethren hope to salvage spiritual freedom while ceding control of the economy to the state. Friedman is to be celebrated for saving them—and saving the rest of us, too—from those “higher” aspirations. The slogan that links free markets and free minds is true because, as Friedman noted, free markets separate “economic power from political power and in this way enable the one to be an offset to the other.” It sounds so simple. It is simple. How much misery could we have avoided had we lived up to that simplicity.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 1
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