One of the greatest thinkers and the most articulate defender of freedom in the twentieth century has died.
Milton Friedman did not plan on becoming an economist. In the autobiography he wrote when accepting the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics he stated that his ambition was to become an actuary. But his decision to study economics has left the world in a much better position. The Nobel Prize he received in economics was, according to the Nobel Foundation, “for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilisation policy”.
Among other things, Friedman showed how the Great Depression of the 1930s was not a failure of capitalism, but a systemic failure of government. Monetary policy was his main academic focus. His comments at the Nobel Banquet Speech December 10, 1976:
“As some of you may know, my monetary studies have led me to the conclusion that central banks could profitably be replaced by computers geared to provide a steady rate of growth in the quantity of money. Fortunately for me personally, and for a select group of fellow economists, that conclusion has had no practical impact… else there would have been no Central Bank of Sweden to have established the award I am honoured to receive. Should I draw the moral that sometimes to fail is to succeed? Whether I do or not, I suspect some economists may.
Needless to say, the attention is flattering, but also corrupting. Somehow, we badly need an antidote for both the inflated attention granted a Nobel Laureate in areas outside his competence and the inflated ego each of us is in so much danger of acquiring. My own field suggests one obvious antidote: competition through the establishment of many more such awards.”
He did not just focus on America because he knew economic principles applied much the same throughout the world. For instance, while my father was running the (now defunct) India Policy Institute, Friedman wrote a few items about India, which are available here. And as Arvind Panagariya writes, the 5,000 word note Friedman produced on his visit to India in 1955 has become “standard thinking among reform-minded economists”. This was the power of his foresight, most evident in his proposal to institute school vouchers. Today we take his ideas for granted. At the time they were truly revolutionary.
But for many non-economists it was his philosophical outlook on life, and his powerful advocacy of an open and free society that had the most impact on ways of thinking. His work – most notably in his book Capitalism and Freedom – has provided the intellectual base for a generation of young libertarians who do not want to see the society around them slide back into socialism. Young libertarians who are progress orientated have found, and will continue to find, that Friedman is indispensable. His work is not the sort which can be discarded after one reading. It will remain relevant well into the next century, if not further.
What I found amazing was Friedman’s ability to remain intellectually active even in his nineties. He gave many interviews and wrote articles (such as this one on why Hong Kong, his ideal of capitalism, has gone backwards) right throughout his life. He knew how to express ideas well, in a way that was not demeaning and was highly persuasive. The clarity of his thought was remarkable and is something to aspire to. There is no doubt that his loss will be felt.
Milton Friedman, RIP.
“…he was an extraordinary person, in more ways tha[n] I can describe.” – David Friedman
“I’ve no doubt that his clarity will survive him and influence people born long after he died.” – Andrew Norton
“In my view he was the greatest champion of human liberty in my lifetime, certainly in the 20th century. And he didn’t slack off in the 21st century.” – Edward H. Crane
“Friedman really had the gift of selling his ideas and writing complex arguments in a manner that was clear and simple but without being dumbed down.” – Jason Soon
“He is one of the few 20th century intellectuals who changed the world for the better.” – Stephen Kirchner
“We lost a great human being today.” – Gregory Mankiw
“Friedman was one of [the] genuinely great thinkers of twentieth century economics – his passing is a major event for all of us who have followed and been influenced by his thinking over the decades.” – Harry Clarke
“[The] tight connection between academic work and public intellectual work is actually the hallmark of Friedman’s greatness.” – Peter Boettke
“He genuinely believed that economics was about making people’s lives better and that disagreements among economists were about means rather than ends and could ultimately be resolved by careful attention to the evidence.” – John Quiggin
“He was truly a revolutionary thinker.” – Steven Levitt