Economics, Political Philosophy

Milton Friedman’s Century

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman, the economist and author who helped inspire some of the most important economic policies of our time and helped millions of people escape poverty. Friedman doesn’t get much recognition outside of economic circles, but his achievements in that field were more than just writing a few textbooks. He helped change the face of the American economy for the better.


When Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976, the world was enamored with the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who taught that government spending would somehow produce a “mulitplier effect” that would lead to economic growth. The theory was that if the government were to spend $1 it would produce more than $1 in economic activity. In the 1960s, Friedman famously wrote that “we’re all Keynesians now”—a position later adopted by Richard Nixon in 1971.

In the 1950s through the 1970s, one could credibly think that the future lay not with free markets but with centrally-planned economies. Keynesianism was the dominant theory in economics and government policy. Governments across the globe were expanding the reach of central planning in a whole host of economic sectors. The ideas of the Austrian Economic School were dismissed as crackpot theories.

But then, the crash hit.

Friedman’s Revolution

In the 1970s, the world economy entered into a massive downslide. The Arab oil embargo pushed gas prices through the roof. But more critically, something happened that Keynesian theory said was impossible: stagflation – high inflation and economic recession. Conventional Keynesian theory taught that inflation and economic recession were opposites and could not happen at the same time. Yet in the 1970s, that is precisely what happened.

Across the globe, politicians tried the conventional Keynesian remedies. In the United States, Richard Nixon instituted wage and price controls to try to stop inflation, an effort that appeared to work at first until it led to massive shortages of goods. Governments tried to spend their way out of the recession, to little forward growth. The world economy was hanging by a thread, and the conventional economic theories were not helping the world pull out of its economic recession.

But it was Milton Friedman that popularized the way out of the mess. Friedman had already chipped away at the intellectual foundations of Keynesianism. He observed that Keynesian spending and the Keynesian multiplier did not work in practice—once the spigots were turned off, a fiscal hangover resulted. Because there was no new production happening to support all the extra spending, the result of Keynesian stimulus was inflation and recession. Governments wanted to try to inflate their way out of the borrowing costs of all the extra spending, which only made things worse. Further, government “investment” was taking place at the expense of private investment that would produce long-term growth.

Friedman’s theories were right, and his work led him to receive the Nobel Prize in 1976. It was not until the end of the 1970s into the early 1980s that leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher embraced his ideas that the world economy truly began to recover.

Free To Choose

But Friedman was more than just a theoretical economist. He was a gifted philosopher and writer as well, and his work on why free markets are so important to a free society is some of his most important work. His first major popular work, Capitalism and Freedom went into the details of why the economic theory of capitalism was so deeply entwined with having a free society. When it was first published, Capitalism and Freedom was a revolutionary work: Friedman advocated such bizarre notions as a “negative income tax,” an all-volunteer military, and school vouchers.

Friedman continued to popularize his pro-free market ideas in the press, writing columns for Newsweek and other publications. But it was in 1980 when Friedman published one of his most accessible works, Free to Choose, that Friedman’s ideas started truly influencing the popular conversation.

Friedman dedicated himself to pursuing advocacy for free markets and limited government, and he did it with a sense of clarity and purpose. He was able to explain why even the most well-intentioned government programs are thwarted by the complexity of a modern economy. The following clip from the Donohue show in the 1980s shows Friedman at his best:

Friedman, of course, had the better argument, and was able to not only write about economics, but to get millions of people to look at economics in a new way. Instead of viewing economics as the “dismal science,” concerned with the shuffling of abstract value, Friedman popularly imbued economics with a moral aspect. Economics was about maximizing the freedom of the individual rather than the collective or the State. It was about ensuring that individuals were best able to pursue their own ends, provide for their own families, grow their own businesses, and prosper. This shift seems common-sense to us now, and that is due in large part to the influence of Milton Friedman.

A Legacy of Freedom

Today, some of the revolutionary ideas in Capitalism and Freedom are a common part of our day-to-day lives. Milton Friedman pushed for an all-volunteer military prior to the Vietnam War, and today the military is and will remain an all-volunteer force. Friedman’s idea of a “negative income tax” blossomed into the Earned Income Tax Credit, a system where people in poverty who choose to work are rewarded for their efforts with a payment from the government. Instead of welfare, which subsidizes poverty, the EITC encourages work and employment. In 2010 alone, the EITC was responsible for lifting an estimated 5.4 million Americans out of poverty. Friedman’s ideas have lifted 200 million people from poverty into prosperity, an achievement that will stand the test of time.

Now, more than ever, we need leaders who will carry Friedman’s mantle of freedom. Keynesianism, discredited in the 1970s and later by the Japanese “lost decade” in the 1990s is making a resurgence. It isn’t that Keynesian theories suddenly work better than they did in the past, it is that governments are using Keynesianism as a rationale for consolidating political power and justifying more and more control over the world economy. Friedman would have seen right through these efforts.

Just as it was in the 1970s, what the world needs now is not more central State planning, but more economic freedom. The solution to our economic problems is to unleash the creative energies of our people and to get government out of the way of economic growth. Friedman understood this from both a philosophical and a practical viewpoint. Friedman was right back then, and he is right today. And if we listed to his wise counsel again, our economy can come roaring back once again. Milton Friedman’s legacy of freedom can bring millions more from poverty to prosperity again if we are only willing to listen.


History Repeating Itself As Tragedy

Will Collier notes that Obama is acting like Jimmy Carter in 1979:

Rather than offering any crumbs of support to the Iranians who are literally putting their lives on the line for their own freedom, Barack Obama could only manage “deep concerns.” In Obamaland, it’s not as important to offer even moral support to people trying to shake off the yoke of a barbaric dictatorship as it is to not appear to be “meddling.”

This all sounds quite familiar, and everyone over 30 has seen it before. Did somebody replace the “community activist” with a self-righteous peanut farmer while we weren’t looking?

The fantasy that “moderates” within the mullah regime can be coaxed into a “grand bargain” has taken in better men than Barack Obama, but Obama doesn’t even have the excuse of not being aware of that prior history. The level of self-loathing an American has to possess to believe that the Khomeinists are a brutal, terror-supporting regime entirely because the US hasn’t been nice enough to them is pretty staggering.

President Obama is laboring under the entirely mistaken premise that because the U.S. overthrew the Mossadegh regime 30 years before most Iranians were even born, that someone we have no legitimacy in the region. That assumption is pure garbagemdash;Obama unquestionably has great power to at the very least show solidarity to the Iranian people. Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy felt free to uncategorically condemn Iranian brutality.

When the French are showing far more spine than you are, it’s a sure sign you’re on the wrong side of the issue.

President Obama is wasting his capital in the Middle East by sitting on the sidelines. The idea that a U.S. show of support would hurt the Green Revolutionaries in Iran is a myth. President Bush openly showed support for the March 14th protesters in Lebanon seeking to end the Syrian occupation of their country. Despite President Bush’s low standing in the region, that call did not hurt the Lebanese people’s cause. Why in the world does Obama think that joining the chorus of world leaders will hurt?

Collier seems correctmdash;Obama shares in the worldview of placing blame on the United States. He is unwilling to use America’s capital because he doesn’t believe in it. He quite literally blames America for the situation rather than seeing the United States as a force that could put its weight behind the crucial cause of freedom in Iran.

John Podhoretz makes the controversial, but compelling argument that Obama’s interests are best served by an Ahmadinejad win. Given that Obama has been taking steps towards deacute;tente with the Iranians and the subtle legitimization of the Ahmadinejad/Khameini regime, having that regime suddenly lose all legitimacy undercuts all of that work and makes Obama look like a fool. Obama’s interests are in a swift return to “normalcy” rather than a messy revolution and a nascent Iranian democracymdash;that reeks too much of George W. Bush for the Obama foreign policy team to take.

A show of solidarity is not “meddling”, especially when the rest of the world has made their position clear. Obama is showing no leadership on that issue, as the Iranian people are inspiring with their bravery. If ever there was a time when “hope” and “change” were needed by a people, the Iranians need it now. Too bad that on this issue Barack Obama is one again voting “present”.

Economics, Obama Administration, Politics

We’re All Merrily Skipping Down The Road To Serfdom

For those who want to know what our future will look like, here’s a brief preview. F.A. Hayek’s brilliant The Road to Serfdom in a short illustrated form.

I’ve never been more bleak about the future of this country. The road to serfdom isn’t obvious. Nobody intentionally elects a dictator for the purpose of electing a dictator. Instead they pour the ill-conceived hopes and dreams into a Leader who promises them the world so long as they give him the power to create it.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that Barack Obama is a dictator. But the point is that he doesn’t have to be. He’s just creating the ideal conditions for one. What truly saddens me, what truly sickens me, is if that Obama passed the “Fairness Doctrine” to silence his critics, created “civilian work corps” to put an army of young men and women into his service, and arrested business owners, nearly half of the county would go along. Nearly half are so filled with irrational love for Obama that they’d let him become a Caesar. It isn’t about issues, it isn’t about the country, it’s about some gauzy notion of “hope.”

To hell with “hope.”

As Charles Murray says, everything Obama is promising has already been tried and failed. There’s nothing new. This isn’t “change we can believe in” this is “I can say whatever the hell I want and you simpletons will slurp it up.” It’s the wish list of every statist in the last 40 years, and it represents a radical and dangerous turn away from tested principles and towards abject statism.

Universal healthcare? It means the government will have to ration what we get. That’s the only way such a system can possibly work. Even worse, it doesn’t scale up at all. Which means America’s larger population will make the endemic and innate problem with universal healthcare worse than in a smaller country like Sweden or even Canada. Which means that we had better get used to dying in lines, and forget risky or experimental treatments.

Universal college education? For most people, a four-year college degree is a waste of time and money. I believe in a liberal arts education, but I’m not so arrogant as to say that it’s right for everyone. But now Obama will make the value of that degree effectively zero—and a four-year college degree is already worth nowhere near what people pay for it. My suspicion is that the real reason for this is ideological: make everyone go through the like-minded public university system and you’ll have an ideologically “pure” citizenry. Even if that’s not the plan, that will be the effect. A better solution would be to make our existing system actually work, but that doesn’t concentrate any political power into the President’s hands.

A cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions? It’s already been tried and failed. It’s a way of creating a stealth tax increase on energy consumption. A more honest approach would be to just slap a tax on energy. But Obama doesn’t want to be honest, he wants to play to the mob. That cap-and-trade programs hurt the Third World doesn’t seem to matter.

I don’t like to ascribe the worst motives for people, but even so President Obama is taking this country farther down the Road to Serfdom than it even has been. It may take decades for America to recover from what he is doing. He is pouring sugar into the engine of American prosperity, and we will suffer for it.

I love this country. I want this country to succeed, regardless of who is the occupant of the Oval Office or what party is in power. But the end result of what Obama wants will be a United States that is following the disastrous path of statism. At best America will suffer a “Lost Decade” like Japan.

At worst? America takes the road to serfdom to its inevitable conclusion.

I wish this were merely sour political grapes. But the future of this country truly is in deep peril. The way to the future is through individualism, hard work, limited government, thrift, ingenuity, and political pluralism. Today, we have a President who wants a cradle-to-the-grave welfare state and has the audacity to not only hope for one, but to say it in no uncertain terms.

I fear that if we continue down this road, the future will belong to India and China, while this nation lives out its twilight years in increasing obsolescence.