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Editorials • March 3, 2007

Milton Friedman, An Appreciation

As a graduate student al Cal in the mid-sixties, I thought Milton Friedman was some kind of right-wing nut. Anyone who did not believe as we did at that time and place — that government was the only possibility there was to assure a fair and just world for all — was by definition, a right-wing nut. Berkeley remains one of few vestigial bastions of sixtiesthink. For me, forty years of living here has driven home on a visceral level how profoundly wrong I was and conversely, to resort to our sixties argot, how absolutely right on was Dr. Friedman.

Friedman’s overarching view was essentially a passionate belief in personal freedom which could only be achieved by free and open markets. The market was the best way to co-ordinate the activities of dispersed individuals to their mutual benefit. "The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving participatory democracy," he said.

Friedman led the postwar challenge to the theories of John Maynard Lord Keynes, the British economist who maintained that governments had a duty to help capitalistic economies through periods of recession and to prevent boom times from exploding into high inflation. In Friedman’s view, government had the opposite obligation: to allow the economy free rein and to let the free market do its work. He was heir to Adam Smith, the 18th-century founder of the science of economics and proponent of laissez-faire: that government governs best which governs least. According to Friedman, the only legitimate function of government with respect to the economy was to control the supply of money — a monetarist view which was not held in high regard when he embraced it in the 1950s.

More than anyone, Milton Friedman articulated that, for all its flaws, the market produces better results for greater numbers of people than the any government ever could. Government is bureaucratic, overreaching, inefficient, unmotivated and unchecked by measures of performance. The voter does not have the power of the customer to put an end to incompetence. What set him apart from other brilliant academics was is role as public intellectual. He took his case to an audience well beyond academia. Through his books, speeches and maybe most significantly, his PBS series, Free to Choose, Friedman communicated to the everyman beyond the campus. He made the dismal science real and certainly far less dismal.

I once saw a night-time satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula. I thought of sending it to Dr. Friedman and regret that I did not. At the DMZ was a line as crisp as knife cut. To the south it bled light; the land was lit up like a Christmas tree. To the north was only black, nary a light to be seen. Same ethnic stock, same heritage, same language; one half shone bright while the other lived in darkness. It told me all I needed to know about the relative merits of economics systems.

Milton Friedman died in San Francisco on November 16th. He was 94. For ever doubting his wisdom, I plead mea culpa. I for one will miss him.

Albert Sukoff March 2007

 

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