Putting Milton Friedman to Work at 110

March 31, 2022   |   Tags:

My years of teaching college-level economics courses at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan (from 1977-1984) are among the most memorable and enjoyable of my life. Fresh out of graduate school, I was eager to change the world—one young person at a time.

More than 400 students filled my classes during many semesters, and they will tell you to this day that I quickly knew them all by name. Why? Because, in keeping with my libertarian philosophy, I never believed “the student body” was anything but a collectivist abstraction. Students don’t come in blobs; each one is a unique individual. Calling him or her by name was a great way to drive that point home. I also noticed that students work harder if they know that you know who they are. (If this interests you, I strongly recommend The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.)

While recently reminiscing about my classroom days, I found myself imagining what course I would most want to teach today. It would not be a typical one in which, as the instructor, I would lecture. Rather, it would be a discussion class in which the students would do most of the talking. Each semester, we would focus on the ideas of a particular scholar—subjecting them to thoughtful analysis, fleshing them out with real-life applications, and extending their logic to discover where they might lead.

I would choose Milton Friedman as the first scholar. Why? For two reasons: Though I didn’t agree with him on everything, Friedman ranks as one of the most eloquent defenders of liberty of the last century. And July 2022 will mark the 110th anniversary of his birth, which adds to the timeliness of remembering his enormous contributions, especially to the cause I hold most dear.

Below are some of the best Friedman quotes on liberty. I would assign my students the task of preparing to discuss each one in detail. How would you defend what Friedman says, and how might you argue from a contrary perspective? What examples can you think of that support or refute each statement? I think we’d have no difficulty consuming an entire semester in discussing these quotes. What do you, the reader, think?

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“I have no right to coerce someone else, because I cannot be sure that I'm right and he is wrong.”

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“Inflation is the one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation.”

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“I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.”

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“I say thank God for government waste. If government is doing bad things, it’s only the waste that prevents the harm from being greater.”

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“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

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“It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”

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“The strongest argument for free enterprise is that it prevents anybody from having too much power. Whether that person is a government official, a trade union official, or a business executive. It forces them to put up or shut up. They either have to deliver the goods, produce something that people are willing to pay for, are willing to buy, or else they have to go into a different business.”

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“It is very hard to achieve good objectives through bad means. And the means we have been using are bad in two very different respects. In the first place, all of these programs involve some people spending other people’s money for objectives that are determined by still a third group of people. Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody has the same dedication to achieving somebody else’s objectives that he displays when he pursues his own.”

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“The [welfare] programs have an insidious effect on the moral fiber of both the people who administer the programs and the people who are supposedly benefiting from it. For the people who administer it, it instills in them a feeling of almost Godlike power. For the people who are supposedly benefiting it instills a feeling of childlike dependence. Their capacity for personal decision-making atrophies. The result is that the programs involved are [a] misuse of money, they do not achieve the objectives which it was their intention to achieve. But far more important than this, they tend to rot away the very fabric that holds a decent society together.”

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Society doesn’t have values. People have values. A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.”

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“There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

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“If a tax cut increases government revenues, you haven’t cut taxes enough.”

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There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

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“To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or a god to be blindly worshipped and served.”

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“The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralizing governmental power. But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government. … Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action.”

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“Because we live in a largely free society, we tend to forget how limited is the span of time and the part of the globe for which there has ever been anything like political freedom: the typical state of mankind is tyranny, servitude, and misery. The nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the Western world stand out as striking exceptions to the general trend of historical development. Political freedom in this instance clearly came along with the free market and the development of capitalist institutions. So also did political freedom in the golden age of Greece and in the early days of the Roman era.”

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“Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated—a system of checks and balances.”

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“The Great Depression in the United States, far from being a sign of the inherent instability of the private enterprise system, is a testament to how much harm can be done by mistakes on the part of a few men when they wield vast power over the monetary system of a country…[M]oney is much too serious a matter to be left to the central bankers.”

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“Those of us who believe in freedom must believe also in the freedom of individuals to make their own mistakes. If a man knowingly prefers to live for today, to use his resources for current enjoyment, deliberately choosing a penurious old age, by what right do we prevent him from doing so? We may argue with him, seek to persuade him that he is wrong, but are we entitled to use coercion to prevent him from doing what he chooses to do? Is there not always the possibility that he is right and that we are wrong? Humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom; arrogance, of the paternalist.”

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“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

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“We have heard much these past few years of how the government protects the consumer. A far more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.”

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Additional Reading

Click here for more Milton Friedman quotes, as well as the source for each of those cited above.

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton and Rose Friedman

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

12 Truth Bombs From Milton Friedman by Jon Miltimore

Milton Friedman Was Right to Call Them ‘Government Schools’ by Kerry McDonald


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