Milton Friedman: the true revolutionary

By Carlos Alberto Montaner*

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(FIRMAS PRESS, Madrid) In the early 1990s, Mexican professor Carolina Bolívar very discreetly went to the University of Havana to deliver several lectures on economic subjects. Her purpose was not to discuss complex technical issues but to explain to the Cuban academicians the reasons why certain societies progressed while others stagnated or retreated. Nor was her purpose to antagonize her interlocutors by refuting Marxist dogmas amid a heated ideological debate.

Carolina simply carried in her luggage an overpowering instrument of persuasion: the television series “Free To Choose,” written and narrated by Milton Friedman one decade earlier. Predictably, the Cuban docents walked out of the conference as if in shock. They not only understood the causes that explained the enrichment of Hong Kong and other Asian dragons but also suddenly realized why collectivism and a planned economy had plunged them and their families into a sewer-deep misery.

The anecdote comes to mind because of the recent passing of Milton Friedman, 1976 Nobel laureate in economics, and because of the question asked by millions of readers in reaction to the flood of information generated by his death: Why was this brilliant, diminutive and controversial economist so important?

Precisely because he explained with tremendous effectiveness the economic and moral consequences of freedom. When a person can make decisions without pressure from the State, both as a producer and a consumer, the final result of that choice, linked to the almost-infinite number of other choices made freely by millions of other people, generates some wondrous levels of prosperity and progress.

At the other extreme of this phenomenon, when a society concentrates the power to choose on a group of experts, on political or religious commissars guided by moral prejudices, or on noble government functionaries empowered to decide what the common good should be, the material and spiritual consequences of that restricted model of social organization are poverty, loss of supplies and the growing apathy of the citizenry.  

Friedman's work also contributed decisively to foment what today is known as consumer sovereignty. When a person freely uses his money and buys a shirt or a perfume, or makes a donation to the Red Cross, he's exercising a right. When a person decides to watch X, Y or Z movie (or XXX, if he so chooses), he is somehow expanding the margins of freedom and democracy.

Furthermore, the freest way to vote may be precisely with money, because representative democracy is, after all, a kind of voluntary limitation of the power to choose. It consists of selecting some people to make decisions on our behalf. However, when we exchange money for goods or services, the market becomes the closest thing to direct democracy: every person makes the decisions that affect him or her. There are no intermediaries.

Who hated Milton Friedman? The enemies of freedom, of course. The social engineers. The collectivists who are lovers of humanity but adversaries of individuality, the people who try to burn down a McDonald's restaurant because they've decided that anyone who wants to buy a hamburger is a wretched fool who has to be prevented by force from freely choosing how to quell his hunger. Those arrogant clods who are full of certitude, convinced that they -- and only they -- know what books adults should read, what music they should hear, what shows they should watch, or what substance they should (or should not) smoke, inhale or ingest.

What's amazing is that those wardens of the human spirit assumed that Friedman was a right-wing conservative, when they were the true representatives of the most rancid and intolerant ideological cave-dwellers. Friedman was the true revolutionary. [©FIRMAS PRESS]   

November 9, 2006

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