When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman, whom I never met but have always regarded as one of my favorite teachers. William F. Buckley was the reason I wanted to become a writer, but it wasn’t until discovering Milton Friedman that I really understood what it was I wanted to write about.
If those of you from outside of Texas need another reason to envy the Lone Star State, wrap your head around this fact: When I was at Lubbock High School, economics was a required course, and Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose was required reading in that course. This meant that I spent my teen-age years among friends and classmates among whom there was practically none who had not read Milton Friedman. Some were moved by Free to Choose, some merely digested it for examination purposes, and some hotly rejected it, but everybody knew it, at least superficially. That was really something. T. S. Eliot once remarked that he thought his students at Harvard might have been better off if they had read fewer books but had read the same books, and there is much to recommend that belief. Education is a conversation.
I had learned many things before encountering Free to Choose, but the work of Milton Friedman was the first thing I learned that seemed to matter. I had been a good student, and schoolwork had been for me simply a theater for performance: I was good at most subjects, but none of them seemed important to me. I gravitated toward literature not because it seemed to me (dread word) “relevant,” but because reading books and writing about them was pleasurable. I was going to be reading books and writing, anyway. But Friedman was something different — my first real memorable contact with organized political thinking. Everything of course seems intense and unprecedented in adolescence — because everything is new — and there is something of the quality of romance to a first intellectual love. For me it was Walt Whitman and Milton Friedman, my church and state. I thank the heavens that my literature curriculum hadn’t included Ayn Rand and that my economics teacher didn’t assign us John Kenneth Galbraith. (And surely you know the joke: All great economists are tall, with two exceptions: Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith.)
The libertarianism of Rand (and she hated the word “libertarian”) was based on an economics of resentment of the “moochers” and “loafers,” the sort of thing that leads one to call a book The Virtue of Selfishness. Friedman’s libertarianism was based on an economics of love: for real human beings leading real human lives with real human needs and real human challenges. He loved freedom not only because it allowed IBM to pursue maximum profit but because it allowed for human flourishing at all levels. Economic growth is important to everybody, but it is most important to the poor. While Friedman’s contributions to academic economics are well appreciated and his opposition to government shenanigans is celebrated, what is seldom remarked upon is that the constant and eternal theme of his popular work was helping the poor and the marginalized. Friedman cared about the minimum wage not only because it distorted labor markets but because of the effect it has on low-skill workers: permanent unemployment. He called the black unemployment rate a “disgrace and a scandal,” and the unemployment statute the “most anti-black law” on the books with good reason. He talked about two “machines”: “There has never been a more effective machine for the elimination of poverty than the free-enterprise system and a free market.” “We have constructed a governmental welfare scheme which has been a machine for producing poor people. . . . I’m not blaming the people. It’s our fault for constructing so perverse and so ill-shaped a monster.”
I knew what he was talking about, because I had seen the monster up close. Not too many years before encountering Friedman, I’d found myself in the odd position of having to talk my mother out of signing our family up for food stamps. (Yeah, I was precisely that kind of ten-year-old.) I do not recall what arguments I made, but I am sure that my motive was impeccably childish: the avoidance of stigma. My mother relented, and that particular rough patch was passed over, in no small part with the help of a month’s worth of groceries that mysteriously appeared on our doorstep one evening. Some time later, we were able to buy a larger house (things had become pretty crowded at home) from a neighbor who was retiring to his vacation home. My mother would not have qualified for a mortgage, and the deal was done by means of a contract drawn up at the kitchen table. Having the old house as a rental property made an enormous difference in our family prospects, and suddenly my mother was in her small way a small-business owner. Those things don’t happen in societies in which everybody is poor and desperate, but in societies in which people generally have enough and expect to have even more in the future. Being a rich society is, as Milton Friedman knew, a choice, and being a rich society leaves you free to choose lots of things, like helping out your neighbors. Americans are not the sort of people who are going to let their neighbors starve in the streets — not then, not now.
Free to Choose gave me the intellectual framework to understand what I already intuited about the welfare state, about the man from the government who says he is here to help. And that is what really should be remembered about Milton Friedman: He didn’t argue for capitalism in order to make the world safe for the Fortune 500, but to open up a world of possibilities for those who are most in need of them. The real subject of economics isn’t supply and demand, but people, and to love liberty is to love people and all that is best in them. And it is something that can only be done when we are free to choose.