Milton Friedman was born in 1912, 100 years ago, and lived almost all of them. He died in 2006 at 94, lucid and combative. His centenary has revived the controversy over his legacy.
In 1976, he received the Nobel Prize for Economics. He is usually referred to as “the father of neoliberalism” or the head of The Chicago School, but he was a lot more than all that. From his works, we can deduce the simplest and most formidable definition of freedom: To be free is to be able to choose without interference or external pressures.
In 1980, Friedman and his wife, Rose, filmed an outstanding television series, Free To Choose. In 10 memorable episodes, the couple examined some successful cases, such as Hong Kong, a prosperous region because of the freedom that individuals enjoyed to produce and sell, vis-à-vis the failure of India, at the time bogged down by central planning and in the hands of bureaucrats, an aberration that the Indians began to abandon a short time thereafter.
In one way or another, most of the economic ills had the same origin: the state, a “philanthropic ogre” that, while pretending to help, generated defenseless citizens incapable of earning a living, while the functionaries wasted enormous amounts of resources that vanished through corruption and the creation of patronage-ridden structures that hampered and sometimes prevented the creation of wealth.
The history of the struggle for freedom is the history of the conquest of the individual’s right to choose. People were happiest and wealthiest when they could choose the god they worshipped or no god at all. When they could work, dress, read, write, marry, divorce or join groups freely. They achieved some civic felicity when they stopped being obedient subjects, became proud citizens and transformed the bosses into timid public servants.
If Friedmanism exists, it consists of three basic ideas/forces: the ardent conviction that nobody knows better than ourselves what we wish and suits us; the firm belief in free competition to gradually perfect the goods and services we acquire or produce; and the need for individuals to assume control of their lives responsibly.
Of course, Friedmanism has important consequences in the current debate. Somehow, it’s linked to the growing rights of consumers. The consumer votes with his money and the State should not foist upon him products he does not desire or have the prerogative of fixing prices, much less criminalize the holding of foreign currency, as happens in Argentina and so many other countries.
Nor should the state assume the right to decide what substances the person may use. If an adult freely decides to smoke marijuana, sniff cocaine or mainline heroin knowing that he may become a poor addict, that stupid behavior — not to be recommended and absolutely pernicious — is part of his right to his own body, and the state should deferentially respect it. Just as it should admit that any person in the fullness of his mental faculties may decide that he doesn’t wish to continue to live because he suffers too much.
To quote a famous Spanish suicide: “To live is a right, not a duty.”
Friedmanism also consists of believing that vouchers are an efficient method to stimulate competition and allow parents to choose the best public schools for their children or the best health institution for anyone, which prompts the institutions to improve the quality of their offers.
There is much common sense in Friedman’s propositions but there is also a huge dose of empirical confirmation. The wealthiest and happiest countries are those where economic freedom and political freedom combine and where the State does not direct the economy or appropriate the jobs of entrepreneurs, limiting itself to encouraging the creativity of individuals by supplying institutions of law and material infrastructures.
Milton Friedman said it in a crystal-clear phrase: “One of the worst mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions, instead of their results.” He was the most practical of all theoreticians. And he was right.