TCS Daily

The Happiest Warrior

By Nick Schulz - July 31, 2002 12:00 AM

The other day a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called me to discuss a story he was working on about conventional wisdom. He knew TCS to be a repository of some of the best alternative wisdom on the web. When he mentioned the subject of the story to me, I immediately thought of Milton Friedman.

It's Milton's 90th birthday today, so we should pause to celebrate him and a life marked by questioning the conventional wisdom. Indeed, Milton Friedman's career has been a case study in the thrill and challenge of taking on the conventional wisdom, only to be proved right in the long run.

When Milton Friedman entered that vague, nebulous world called "public life" it was the middle of the twentieth century. Up until that point, he had been a respected if obscure economist. At that time, a conventional wisdom was congealing that well-meaning governments -- staffed with the best and the brightest from our nation's top schools -- were best positioned to solve many of society's problems and meet society's needs. Beginning with FDR and the New Deal, followed by the Kennedy administration and carrying through the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter administrations, the operating government dynamic in the U.S. was central planning in action: Washington should identify the nation's problems and set out to fix them. Not only was this the case in Washington. This was the conventional wisdom in capitals around the globe.

Milton Friedman came along at that time and said -- as humbly as possible -- that all of this was nonsense. He challenged the conventional wisdom at the time, setting out to change what he liked to call the "climate of opinion." That climate was not receptive to passionate defenses of individual liberty, especially freedom in the economic sphere (N.B. Friedman would point out that there's no difference between economic and other kinds of personal freedom, but that's a point for another day). And he rattled the public cage with two influential books -- "Capitalism and Freedom" and "Free to Choose" -- and a widely viewed television documentary, also called "Free to Choose."

The nation's academic and political establishment did not know what hit it. Here was this pleasant man with a wide smile, his eyes twinkling, short of stature but brimming with confidence in his ideas. And what ideas they were. All of them seemed so thoroughly (even morally) repugnant to the nation's elites. The devil makes himself known, and he's barely five feet tall!

While the government grew, Milton Friedman was saying it shouldn't; while taxes were being raised, Milton Friedman was saying they should be lowered; while the health care system was being socialized, Friedman was saying this was a mistake; while more regulations were coming out of Washington, Milton Friedman was saying there were already too many. He was the most articulate and brilliant of a few lone American voices trying to reverse the direction of history.

And then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a funny thing happened. Americans didn't like the direction the country was heading. And they didn't like the direction the world was heading -- away from freedom, away, from liberty, away from openness. And they decided they wanted a change. It was a change in the direction that Milton Friedman had been articulating publicly for a generation.

Things change slowly over time in a world and in a country this size. But change they have. The world has seen the greatest threat to individual freedom -- global socialism/communism -- toppled and thoroughly discredited. And the climate of opinion in the United States changed to reflect the views of Milton Friedman. So thoroughly did America change that a Democratic president -- who at one point tried unsuccessfully to plan the nation's entire health care system -- was forced to admit famously that "the era of big government is over." Milton Friedman was as responsible as anyone for bringing that era to a close. The conventional wisdom he pooh-poohed for decades ultimately -- thankfully -- succumbed to his deeper wisdom.

But this 90th birthday is a mixed one for Friedman. He recently witnessed one of his "crazy" and more "extreme" ideas -- advocating a system of vouchers with which parents could pick the schools of their choice to send their kids -- validated by the United States Supreme Court. So as he rides up the sunny California coast to his vacation home to relax this summer with his wife Rose and family and friends. Milton Friedman, it would seem, has a lot to celebrate.

But Friedman knows better than anyone that the conventional wisdom -- the "climate of opinion" -- still has a ways to go. He is aware of the current threats to economic liberty. They are, to a large extent, similar to those he has been battling for sixty years. Even with a Republican president -- the Republican party ostensibly being the party of individual and economic liberty over state action -- we have seen increased tariffs on steel, restrictions placed on political speech, increased subsidies for farmers, and a massive prescription drug bill in the pipeline that will prove costly and limit choices. And in the wake of media and political hysteria over America's corporate accounting, the forces of darkness (Krugmanism, Kuttnerism, and other socialism-cum-economic-suicide-isms) are on the march again.

In other words, there is still much, much work to be done, a fact Milton Friedman would be the first to recognize. That said, the climate of opinion has changed so much for the better since he first joined America's public debate. And for that we must pause to thank the happiest warrior, Milton Friedman.



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