The Milton Friedman I remember: Inspirational
IPN Opinion article
Pages and pages of obituaries have already been written about Milton Friedman, describing his numerous outstanding achievements but they do not speak much of Milton, the man. I am writing from the perspective of someone whose life's work has been much influenced by him, not only through his ideas but also by knowing him as he happened to live above my father, Antony Fisher in San Francisco. Although Milton would challenge people to analyse and reflect, and would not accept sloppy thinking, I will always remember him as being approachable and having time to explain and discuss ideas and issues. Despite being a hugely important and respected international figure, he would engage with anyone brave enough to approach him. Milton's wife Rose accompanied him nearly everywhere. She also co-authored one of his most influential books - Free to Choose, which subsequently became a television series - as well as The Tyranny of the Status Quo. Milton and Rose were a wonderful and enduring partnership, a powerful pair but never remote or aloof. They tirelessly encouraged others who were interested in freedom and free societies. For those who genuinely wanted to further this cause, they would help in any way. On one occasion following the memorial service for my father, Milton and Rose came and sat round the kitchen table. We ate pizza while Milton explained to my brothers and me why it was governments that caused inflation, and that therefore only governments could cure it. Thankfully, this is a lesson that has now been learned in most countries. Milton Friedman certainly moved the economic and political goal posts for his generation and those that follow by challenging the consensus on inflation, and placing the blame firmly at the feet of government. Unless people have lived with inflation they cannot imagine how crucial a stable currency is to running a business or managing one's life. Everything is vastly more difficult and frustrating and saving for the future is almost impossible. Many millions of people who never knew him, and had almost certainly never heard of him, have reason to be grateful to him for the relative price stability that so many of us now enjoy. It is an aspect of life one takes for granted until for some reason, as in Zimbabwe today, it disappears. Milton's explanations of how markets work and why freedom of choice is so crucial, especially in lifting people from poverty, have been equally influential. He offered clear, unambiguous explanations about the role of prices, the chaos caused by government-imposed controls, and the unintended consequences created when equality of outcome is put ahead of freedom: 'A society that puts equality - in the sense of equality of outcome - ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality or freedom'. Compared to Friedman's views on inflation, his views about equality probably have not been well understood by national governments or international agencies, but they are equally if not more important. Much of Friedman's work was intended to benefit those who were least well off, and this was no coincidence. He understood so well that freedom benefits everyone, while central control so often only benefits the elite. In other words, the poor suffer most when freedom is restricted. He wanted the least affluent members of society to have the same chances as the privileged. Because of his background (the son of immigrant parents to the United States), he realised so well that this could only happen when those individuals had freedom of choice. Of course, the world's poorest countries today could stand to adopt this wisdom as the basis of their public policies. Friedman's main interest in his later years was in extending choice in education to everyone, regardless of their income. He and Rose set up a foundation to pursue this sole purpose. Its mission speaks of 'the desperate need for a shift of power to the disenfranchised parents of America who have limited choices and voices in the education of their children.' He realized that the best way of giving disadvantaged children a better chance was to give their parents freedom of choice in their children's education. Never particularly seeking the limelight, Friedman was a fearless opponent of central control. He deserves enormous credit for challenging the post-WWII consensus of national and global collectivism. Though these views were unpopular at the time, history has borne out his wisdom. Friedman has been -- and will continue to be -- an inspiration to those of us who were lucky enough to know him, or who have learnt from him. History will no doubt see him as one of the great minds of modern times.