Milton Friedman, Economist, Philosopher, Advisor, Teacher

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.” – Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman — economist, author, presidential advisor and teacher — died this week (Nov. 16) in 2006, having lived a truly consequential life.  Honored with a Nobel Prize in economic sciences, this professor at the University of Chicago was, as The Economist once put it, “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th Century … and possibly all of it.”

He was also an unabashed believer in capitalism and the free-market economic system, and an unceasing critic of government interference not only in the economy, but also in people’s lives.  And his criticisms were often as memorable as they were apt.  Once, while visiting a government-run building project in Asia, he asked his guide why the workers were using shovels and wheelbarrows instead of bulldozers and trucks.  “It creates more jobs,” his guide replied.  “Then why not use spoons?” Friedman asked.

Friedman’s faith in private enterprise earned him many detractors, who accused him of favoring the rich over the poor.  To which Friedman replied that alleviating the suffering of the poor was among his highest priorities.  “There has never been a more effective machine for the elimination of poverty than the free-enterprise system and free market,” he once said.  In other words, reduce the government’s role in the economy and in our lives, and watch how many more people prosper.  The welfare state, Friedman complained, “is a machine for producing poor people.”

Friedman also firmly believed in providing the poor a good education, as opposed to a government-monopoly education.  As early as the mid-1950s Friedman was writing about the failure of public schools to properly prepare America’s poorest children to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.  Thus he was among the first to propose a school voucher system that would allow disadvantaged children access to the same quality private-school education that was afforded the more fortunate.

Friedman’s teachings influenced not only his students, but also readers of his best-selling book, Free to Choose, which became a popular television series.  He also counseled many world leaders, including Ronald Reagan, who was guided by Friedman in his successful efforts to tame the runaway inflation of the late 1970s without unduly harming the economy.

Speaking of keeping government out of people’s lives, Friedman once said that his proudest public accomplishment was helping end conscription — the forced drafting of young men into the army — which prompted another of his memorable rejoinders.  When General William Westmoreland defended conscription by saying he didn’t want to command “an army of mercenaries,” Friedman replied, “You would rather command an army of slaves?”