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Milton Friedman: One of the Great Libertarians

Milton Friedman has accomplished more for liberty than anyone else in his time period.

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By Roman Bilan | United States

Murray Rothbard was born in 1926 and died in 1995. Milton Friedman was born in 1912 and died in 2006. Their careers almost entirely overlapped, yet one left a lasting influence on the free world, while the other died in more or less absurdity. Rothbard only influenced his own cult-like following, yet many of his anarcho-capitalists rather “throw out” Friedman’s libertarian legacy.

When it comes to twentieth century figures within the libertarian movement, there may no greater figure when it comes to influencing economics, the public, American public policy and the lives of millions.

Milton the Economist

Milton Friedman’s contributions to the science of economics cannot be understated. He was the figurehead of the Chicago School, a free market oriented school of economic thought based out of the University of Chicago. Alongside him were his prominent colleagues, Frank Knight, Ronald Coase, and Robert Lucas, to name a few.

The entire field owes a huge debt to Friedman and his crew. He overturned many of the prevailing errors brought about by the Keynesian Revolution: most notably with his critique of the Phillips Curve. Even Paul Krugman admits that Friedman did the science a great service with his contributions and critique of former Keynesian orthodoxy:

“Friedman’s critique of Keynes became so influential largely because he correctly identified Keynesianism’s weak points… I regard him as a great economist and a great man.”

-Paul Krugman

Regardless of how you feel about his political inclinations, he believed in them because of his economic thought. And his thought is arguably one of the most profound things to be produced in the 20th century. It is completely unfair to dismiss, much less “throw out,” someone because of minor disagreements on theory. Friedman is one of the greatest intellectuals of his time and libertarians should wholeheartedly embrace him as one of their own.

Milton the Public Intellectual

As was written in his obituary for FEE, “Friedman did more than any single person in our time to teach the public the merits of deregulation, privatization, low taxes, and free trade. His work inspired the economic agendas of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as the liberalization of economies in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.”

Take Capitalism and Freedom, for example. Read by over half a million in eighteen different languages, it introduced ideas like school vouchers and pushed for lower and flatter taxes.

Similarly, Free to Choose was the best selling nonfiction book in 1980 and was watched by millions. Only F.A. Hayek could boast a similar public reach for a libertarian.

Additionally, Friedman wrote over 300 op-eds for Newsweek, 121 op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and another twenty-two for the New York Times. But maybe he would have been been better off preaching to the libertarian choir instead of engaging with the public at large?

Milton Ends the Draft

In 1940, the United States began its third and final draft. On March 27, 1969 President Richard Nixon formed the Gates Commission to look at the possibility of an All-Volunteer Armed Forces– Friedman was one of its most prominent members. The commision of fifteen members had five members in favor of an all-volunteer armed forces while the other ten were split evenly between being against the idea and neutral towards it. In less than a year, the Commission came to a unanimous 14-0 recommendation (one member was unable to vote on the specifics, although he did support an all-volunteer military) to end the draft.

Three years later, the draft was gone.

Milton Influences Estonia

On August 20, 1991, Estonians left the darkness of the Iron Curtain and joined the free world as the Republic of Estonia replaced the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Mart Laar was the first Prime Minister of Estonia after the interim government. He led from 1992 to 1994 and again from 1999 to 2002. As noted in Foreign Policy,

“In barely two years, from 1992 to 1994, the radical reforming Estonian government of Mart Laar introduced a flat tax, privatized most national industry in transparent public tenders, abolished tariffs and subsidies, stabilized the economy, balanced the budget, and perhaps most crucially, restored the prewar kroon and pegged it to the rock-solid deutsche mark. As a result, Estonia became one of the most open and transparent economies in Europe, and with growth came political stability: Russian troops left the Baltic region by 1994, fears of Balkan-style ethnic conflicts receded, and Soviet noncitizens in Estonia and Latvia began to assimilate.”

Before Laar became Prime Minister he read one book: Free to Choose by Milton Friedman. A few years later, he was in D.C., talking with US Representative Dick Armey. Armey asked how the Estonian government was able to be so successful with their free market reforms. Laar’s answer was simple, “We read Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek”.

Milton Friedman: Common Complaints

No, Milton Friedman was not an Austrian, but Austrian Economics is not synonymous with libertarianism. Libertarians can be non-Austrian and Austrians can be non-libertarian.

No, Milton Friedman did not believe in Praxeology, but Praxeology is also not a necessity for libertarianism, nor is its veracity without question. Even F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises’s greatest student, broke from Praxeological orthodoxy.

No, Milton Friedman is not an anarcho-capitalist. He believes in a state, but anarcho-capitalism is only one part of the broader libertarian ideology. As Hayek said, “Our general views on what is desired and what is not are almost identical until we get on to money.”

The greatness of a libertarian should not be defined by their purity, but by how much they advance liberty. Libertarians like Murray Rothbard win the purity test but do little to advance libertarianism. As Paul Krugman wrote in 1994, Friedman waged a campaign “Goliath of Big Government” that “eventually bore fruit in radical changes in both economic ideology and real-world economic policy.”

Whether it be his direct or indirect influence on Republican administration, pushing free market policies in other countries, advocating for drug legalization, getting the state out of education, loosening licensing laws, giving less power to central banks or cutting taxes and spending, Milton Friedman’s legacy is one of promoting freedom and liberty. Thus, libertarians should be proud to share an intellectual home with him.


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