Students of economics, you may now feel free to pour your liquor of choice onto the curb. Milton Friedman, perhaps the wisest, most articulate defender of free markets this century has known, has passed away. As it seems to be the case with most economists, Friedman made sure to get his share of time on Earth, clocking in at 94 years among the living. Unfortunately, that kind of longevity has caused the soundness of Friedman’s ideas and the clarity with which he spread them to be taken for granted by the younger generations. While it might be hard to believe, what he said about economics was once radical. It wasn’t Che-style radical – it was the kind of radical that works.
Those of you who have suffered under professors who spend thirty straight lectures mumbling long, memorized definitions directly at the chalkboard will be skeptical that easy articulacy and economics can co-exist. Yet, time and again, with his deceptively succinct insights into the ins and outs of production, consumption and distribution, Friedman proved emphatically that they can. Among his many unforgettable examples, the economist illustrated the effectiveness of the division of labor by holding up a pencil. Although the object may be extremely simple, Friedman said it could never reach anyone’s hands without the combined efforts of disparate resource extractors, manufacturers and distributors. This cooperation does not require the oversight of starry-eyed planning geniuses with Utopian visions. It doesn’t even matter if those involved in the production of the pencil’s components despise one another. Profit-based incentives bring their work together, and the pencils – as well as myriad other goods – to the market.
Though Friedman possessed an undisputed knack for clarifying the basics of his discipline, he wasn’t simply a teacher – his work was prescriptive as well. As an advocate of individual liberty over centralized government control, he had a concise description of the core problem plaguing such oft-griped-about fields as health care and education. There are four ways to spend money. When you spend your own money on yourself, you get the best value for your dollar. When you spend it on someone else, you’re less concerned about the quality, but still mindful of the cost. If you spend someone else’s money on yourself, you’ll be all about the quality but unlikely to pay heed to the cost. If it’s somebody else’s money you’re spending on somebody else, any old thing is acceptable. When the state provides something, they’re spending somebody else’s money on somebody else, but that “somebody else” is you, and any old thing is, tragically, what you invariably get.
Friedman’s style opened countless pairs of eyes, from government to academia to those of the average consumer. There’s every chance that one of your econ instructors was a militant teen Marxist before picking up his Capitalism and Freedom, and it’s a benefit to all of u that they have since discovered both monetarist thought and personal hygiene. Above all, Milton Friedman taught us that, in general, things are getting better, and they’ll continue to do so as long as we keep wrenches out of the machinery of the free market. “A society,” he wrote, “that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality or freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.” Though he may be gone, society would do very well indeed to keep his teachings in mind.
Colin Marshall is a fourth-year economics and political sciences major.