One of Milton Friedman’s greatest gifts was his ability to take the most complex ideas and explain them so they became accessible and easy to comprehend. He was a champion of freedom, working to extricate us from the toils of government. Milton stood for freedom in all its forms: personal liberty and responsibility, free markets, and choice.
In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Milton wrote, “In the almost six decades since the end of World War II, intellectual opinion in the United States about the desirable role of government has undergone a major shift. At the end of the war, opinion was predominantly collectivist. Socialism—defined as government ownership and operation of the means of production—was seen as both feasible and desirable. Those few of us who favored free markets and limited government were a beleaguered minority.
“In subsequent decades opinion moved away from collectivism and toward a belief in free markets and limited government,” he added. “By 1980 opinion had moved enough to enable Ronald Reagan to win the presidency on a quasi-libertarian agenda.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 delivered the final blow to the belief in socialism. Hardly anyone today, from the far left to the far right, regards socialism in the traditional sense of government ownership and operation of the means of production as either feasible or desirable. Those who profess socialism today mean by it a welfare state.
“To summarize: After World War II, opinion was socialist and practice was free market,” Milton noted. “Currently, opinion is free market and practice is heavily socialist. We have largely won the battle of ideas (though no such battle is ever won permanently); we have succeeded in stalling the progress of socialism, but we have not succeeded in reversing its course. We are still far from bringing practice into conformity with opinion.”
It is a fitting tribute that today, just a few short decades after winning the battle of ideas in this country, his ideas have taken root around the world, including some places where least expected: Russia and Eastern Europe (where his ideas played a role in helping to weaken the communist system) and in the burgeoning economies of Southeast Asia, Latin America, India, and China.
Freedom is on the march thanks in great part to the dedication, devotion, and towering intellect that was Milton Friedman. His tremendous legacy includes ideas that will live on and guide us for years to come, as well as his marriage and family.
Milton was inseparable from his wife of 68 years, Rose Director Friedman. A team unequaled in intellectual stature, Milton and Rose considered themselves “two lucky people,” a phrase coined in the title of their autobiography. It was a joy to see them together. Indeed, the only time I saw Milton pause to regroup on an analytic point was when he was questioned by Rose. Our hearts go out to Rose, and to Milton and Rose’s daughter, son, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.