Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman was born 100 years ago today. What a shame he isn't still around. I'd have loved to read his commentary on today's quarrels over economic policy. When he died in 2006 I wrote a column for National Journal on the enormous influence he'd had on my thinking.

Did Friedman win the battle of ideas? By no means, I think he'd be forced to conclude--though he fought a good fight. At the end of the article I mentioned what I still think is the guiding insight in his work. It shouldn't be a difficult point to grasp, but how many people, really, did he persuade about this?

"It is important to emphasize that economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, 'freedom' in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so 'economic freedom' is an end in itself to a believer in freedom. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom."

It is still true, despite Friedman's best efforts, that economic liberty is widely regarded as very much a second-class kind of freedom -- if it counts as freedom at all. When the government infringes on civil liberties -- to help it prosecute the war on terror, let's say -- there is an outcry, and rightly so. In this country, most infringements of free speech are simply unthinkable. But a tax increase (a confiscation of private property), or an import quota (a prohibition to spend your money as you wish), or a mandated company benefit, or any number of other economic directives and interventions, whether justified on balance or not, are infringements of liberty too.

Even to point this out (which one must be careful to do only now and then) stains you as a libertarian zealot, somebody quite beyond the normal realm of political discourse. A tax increase might be bad if it harms incentives to work, or if it unduly burdens the poor; an import quota might be costly and inefficient; and so forth. But how often does it occur to anybody to object to such policies as simple infringements of one's freedom -- not all that different, in some ways, from the infringements of civil liberty that respectable opinion finds so scandalous?

There is no great mystery about the reason for this double standard. Freedoms that express themselves through market relations -- the freedom to buy and sell -- are widely regarded as ethically compromised. This is the freedom to gratify one's greed, to exploit others, to con and be conned, where the market is a jungle, a war of all against all. There is a germ of truth in all that, of course, enough to lend it plausibility. But it misses the larger truth, of the market as an astoundingly productive system of voluntary cooperation, in which people of myriad beliefs, loyalties, and faiths can engage with others, freely, and to their enormous mutual benefit. If Friedman, with all his powers of persuasion, could not convince people of that larger truth, it is hard to say what will.