- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Milton Friedman, the only economist I know with a sunny disposition, was in great shape the other night at the Stanford, Calif. home of George Shultz. They tell me that the former secretary of state threw a wonderful party for his longtime close friend on the occasion of the Nobel laureate's 90th birthday. Officially, Milton was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 31, so the party was premature by a week. But that's the way it has always been with Milton. He was always right prematurely.

What was being celebrated was the birthday of a great American civic leader and an economist with a global reputation (Norman Pearlstine, Time Magazine editor, has described Milton as "the economist of the century"), and one whose intellectual achievements in the 20th century were not based on 19th-century promises of a rosy future a la Marx, but on measurable benefits in the here and now for millions and millions of Americans and people the world over.

The "official" verdict on Milton's achievements and on those of men like Friedrich Hayek came a dozen years ago from the Marxist economist, Robert Heilbroner, in 1989 in the pages of The New Yorker magazine where two years before the Soviet Union slid into oblivion he wrote that the Marxist era was over, no longer the wave of the future. Mr. Heilbroner's essay opened with this thunderclap sentence: "Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won." The triumph of entrepreneurial capitalism brought to power believers in a free economy like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Milton's books (many of them written with his wife and colleague, Rose) helped start the capitalist counter-revolution in America. They created the television mini-series based on their best-selling "Free to Choose." When "Capitalism and Freedom," which emphasized the indissoluble link between political and economic liberty, came out in 1963, it was ignored by the mainstream press. In the Marxist miasma of the 1960s, Mr. Friedman's ideas were regarded as reactionary, backward-looking and enslaving. No major newspaper bothered to review the book.

Eventually, however, it sold more than 500,000 copies and was translated into 18 languages. And then, in 1976, came the Nobel Prize for his seminal work in economics. The citation read: "The fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy." It recognized Milton's leadership of what is known as the Chicago School of monetary economics, which stresses the importance of controlling the money supply as an instrument of government policy.

Many of his ideas, which were regarded only yesterday as outrageous by the liberal-left, have become widely accepted and in some cases, have even become the law of the land. School vouchers, a volunteer army, decriminalization of drugs, privatization of Social Security, abandonment of government licensing and floating exchange rates are some of the ideas conceived or improved upon by Milton. From a military standpoint, probably the most important of his ideas was that the government should abolish the draft and introduce an all-volunteer army of professionals. That, too, was a revolutionary proposal. President Nixon adopted the idea, and it was that volunteer force that won the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, and which is now preparing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Probably his most debatable idea is his opposition to the "war on drugs," which Milton regards as an infringement on personal freedom: The government has no more right to tell someone what to put in his mouth than what to put in his brain. You can argue against Milton, but it would a lot easier to argue with him if the decades-old government war against drugs showed any signs of success. The point about arguing with Milton is that you can always win if he's out of the room.

In all his years in the public arena, Milton has, with one youthful exception, never taken a government position. He has served on government advisory committees and as an economic adviser in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Presidents Nixon and Reagan, but has avoided anything that smacked of being on a government payroll. The reason?

"Abraham Lincoln talked about a government of the people, by the people, for the people," he once said. "Today, we have a government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats, including in the bureaucrats the elected members of Congress, because that has become a bureaucracy too."


Arnold Beichman is a columnist for The Washington Times. He and Milton Friedman are colleagues at the Hoover Institution.

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