On the centennial of Milton Friedman's birth, I offer one statement and one story to illustrate the essence of the man.
The statement, taken from the introduction to a Hoover Digest paying tribute to his legacy shortly after his death:
“The great man or woman in history,” Sidney Hook, the late philosopher and Hoover fellow, argued in his classic study, The Hero in History, “is someone of whom we can say . . . that if they had not lived when they did, or acted as they did, the history of their countries and of the world . . . would have been profoundly different.”
Milton Friedman, who by the time of his death at 94 this past November had seen the United States, China, India, and nations in Latin America and Eastern Europe embrace his principles of free markets and human liberty, met Hook's criterion. Milton transformed the history of the world.
The story, illustrating his powers of perception, comes from a 2008 Forbes column:
Over dinner with Milton Friedman several years before he died, I offered the great man a compliment. He refused it.
I had just re-read God and Man at Yale, the 1951 book in which William F. Buckley Jr., denounced the leftist attitudes he had encountered among the Yale faculty and administration as an undergraduate. Buckley singled out the department of economics as the most collectivist department on the campus. "Today," I said, "nobody would call the economics department at a major university 'collectivist.'"
Academia as a whole may have continued its long, sorry wobble to the left, I continued, but the economics profession had proved an exception, moving the other way. Departments of economics across the country now grasped the importance of free markets. "Mises, Hayek, Stigler and you," I told Friedman. "You've transformed the intellectual climate. You've won."
Friedman shook his head. "We may have won the intellectual battle," he replied, "but in practical politics, it's difficult to see that we've had any effect at all."
Government spending had continued to grow, he explained. After a pause during the Reagan years, regulations had once again proliferated. For a moment, Friedman grew silent. Then he looked at me.
"The challenge for my generation," he said, "was to provide an intellectual defense of liberty. The challenge for your generation is to keep it."
How right he was. Milton Friedman at 100: more relevant than ever.