A Gentle Touch

Monday, October 30, 2006

Although Milton Friedman spent only a couple of years in government service—he was in the Treasury during the Roosevelt years—he was in many respects the consummate public servant. With energy and zeal, he devoted more than 50 years to articulating a philosophy of free markets and economic freedom, and to developing policies to improve the lives of people around the globe. Through his writings and public speaking, he has affected more policy change than most individuals serving in government can ever hope to influence. The former communist regimes have embraced his free market philosophy. The world’s central banks have adopted his views about the causes of inflation and inflation control. Freely floating exchange rates govern most of the world’s currency markets. And the tax-and-transfer social security programs in nearly two dozen countries have been replaced or supplemented with personal social security accounts. Through each of these policies, Milton’s work has contributed to the unprecedented prosperity the world enjoys today.

Milton often advised me not to worry about whether my policy recommendations were immediately popular, only about whether they were beneficial to the general public. He believed that sound policies, once placed in the arena of public debate, would eventually be embraced by public officials seeking solutions to economic problems. He, of course, was right. When he developed many of his policies, government intervention in the economy was in its ascendancy and his ideas were out of fashion. For example, Milton first recommended educational vouchers in 1955. His all-volunteer military and the negative income tax proposals followed in 1967. Eventually, each of these ideas has become part of U.S. public policy. Educational vouchers are now operational in six major cities around the United States; the federal government abolished the military draft in 1973; and his proposed negative income tax led to the creation of the earned income tax credit in 1975.

Through his writings and public speaking, Milton affected more policy change than most individuals serving in government can ever hope to influence.

Milton designed public policies based on his philosophical beliefs that individual freedom was paramount and that government power should be limited. He often remarked that the primary purpose of his policy proposals was to expand personal freedom rather than to fix a particular problem. Thus, almost all of Milton’s policy recommendations have individual choice at their core. If people are not free to choose, they are not free.

As the world adjusts to the loss of this great man, most people will remember Milton’s brilliance and clarity of mind. I will always remember his kind and gentle heart. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young academic, I received an offer to join the new Reagan administration. Because I had an important decision to make, I sought Milton’s advice. Milton told me that I should accept the offer. I would learn much and I might even succeed in changing labor policy in a small way. But, he cautioned, “don’t stay for more than two years because your mind will turn to mush.” Well, I stayed for more than two years. In the years since my return to Hoover, I regularly consulted Milton with my often mushy ideas. He always took the time to correct the flaws in my reasoning and always did so with a gentle touch.