I’m not one for commemorating anniversaries and dates. And, even if I was, I can’t attach a date to most of my important revelations and discoveries.
That being said, I do have an exception.
Milton Friedman died exactly five years ago today. I remember this well because I had never heard of him until word of his death rippled across the news. Out of curiosity, and with no greater aspiration than to find out who this Friedman fellow was, I picked up my father’s copy of the New York Sun on the evening of November 17th and went straight to the obituary for Dr. Friedman.
The piece itself covered what I had heard on the radio and in the news, but it included a point that I didn’t recognize: “Milton […] was methodically demonstrating how market-oriented thought was more humane than any charity — not to mention welfare.”
It was funny for me to see the word “humane” in an obituary about an economist. From my understanding, economists were the puppeteers behind economic growth and the Federal Reserve. They dealt with numbers and graphs; where was the humanity in that? Politicians were the ones fighting for freedoms and humanity, the economists were just there to make sure it was bankrolled.
Or at least that’s what I thought. The funny line that contradicted my understanding led me to purchase Capitalism and Freedom, which was the beginning of my acquaintance with the Friedman canon and my abandonment of most political wisdoms. I had not thought to question the conventions put before me until I read Friedman’s arguments against things like licensure and the public school system. To resolve government dysfunction, Friedman advocated a third path; a marketplace. (Or, as Friedman wrote, “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”)
Before reading Friedman, I doubt I could have defended my political sympathies with anything other than talking-points and a few quotes from Adam Smith. I didn’t think much about politics because I was fairly certain nobody could be right. From my understanding, each politician was pledging for what was essentially the same end: a peaceful and prosperous country. The Republican Party seemed more willing to sacrifice individual rights in this pursuit and the Democrats were more willing to deter investment and economic growth. I did not know how to understand policy except in terms of trade-offs. Learning about market forces, economics and the incentive structure of our government led me to believe that there are solutions to the political and economic difficulties that each politician waxes on every election season. The problem is that it’s rare to find someone brave enough to implement them.
Milton Friedman led me to think about politics in terms of human freedom and subjective values, as opposed to a two-party dichotomy. I’m happy to celebrate his life and my liberation today.