Milton Friedman on the American Economy (2 of 6)
Uploaded by donotswallow on Aug 9, 2009
THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Milton Friedman
Title: A Nobel Laureate on the American Economy VTR: 5/31/77
Friedman: General public ideas are much slower to move than intellectual ideas. That’s a fortunate thing. The public at large never moved as far in the direction of socialism and collectivism as the intellectual community did. They preserved a kind of a stability which kept us from going even faster than we did. One of the reasons in my opinion why Britain went so much faster toward a completely socialized state than we have gone is because the intellectual and ruling communities in Britain are more homogeneous and more nearly one. Well fortunately we have a much more diversified and varied set of elites. So I think the public at large never went as far as the intellectuals in that direction. And I am sure they are slow in turning around and going back the other way. I’m not saying that there has been any major trend in the public opinion at large, but only that in the intellectual community, in the community of the youngsters and young people who are coming up; no change in the older ones either.
You know, human beings have certain very common characteristics. It’s very hard for anybody to change his mind after he’s gotten to the age of 25 or 30 and gets set in his ways. It’s always fascinating to me. I had an interview this morning, a radio interview with a group of youngsters from a radio program called “Focus on Youth.” They were lively, energetic, bright; they were a wonderful group. They had a guest book in which they asked me to write a message and my name. And soothe message I wrote was “How is it that these bright, energetic, brilliant, dynamic young people turn within such few years into such deadly dull, unimaginative inactive adults?”
HEFFNER: You mean the rest of us?
FRIEDMAN: The rest of us. All of us. You’ve noticed this, I’m sure. You’re on the campus, on Rutgers. Haven’t you always been impressed by the contrast between…the liveliness and active minds of the young graduate students and of the opposite on the part of the settled, permanent tenured instructors?
HEFFNER: Well, we could argue that point out, Professor Friedman, at some point.
FRIEDMAN: I don’t want to overstate it. There’s an element to it. Well, going back to the main point, I believe it is true, and I’m sure you’re right and many people will believe that government owes them something. The point is that the first step in people’s conversion is never with respect to their own privileges but always with respect to somebody else. Everybody always knows he’s an exception. You ask people, “Do you think government should be cut down to size?” “Oh, of course.” “How about the program you benefit from?” “Oh, well, that’s a special case. That needs more money.” So I don’t believe there’s any contradiction between people saying “Gimme”, on the one hand; and these same people acting in another capacity to as to hold down the rate of growth in the state.
HEFFNER: You know, I would ask you the same question that I asked you a couple of years ago, and that is, why do you hold on, as it seems to me you do, hold on almost for dear life, to a kind of optimism despite all the things that you see and comment on in front of you? Why not recognize the situation for what it is, as you describe it so well, and then perhaps point ourselves in a different direction?
FRIEDMAN: Down the same road. There’s no different direction down that road. Don’t kid yourself. There just is no different direction down that road. This isn’t a strange road. We, you and I, who have been lucky enough to have been born in a free society, take freedom for granted as if it’s a natural phenomenon. But let me ask you, what fraction of the human race today lives in free societies?
HEFFNER: Tiny, tiny, tiny percentage.
FRIEDMAN: Over history, what fraction at any moment of time ever lived in free societies?
HEFFNER: Even tinier.
FRIEDMAN: Even tinier.
HEFFNER: I’m leading you down the garden path, Professor Friedman.
FRIEDMAN: No, you’re not. No, you’re not. It is true that the normal condition of mankind is tyranny and misery. We’ve escaped. We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to escape into an island of freedom and prosperity. If we do not maintain that island of freedom, of prosperity, if we do not maintain the essential features of this society which made that freedom and prosperity possible, there isn’t a wide range of alternatives. We go to misery and tyranny, to the normal state of mankind. Why am I optimistic? Because we’re also ignorant. If we could really predict the future, you couldn’t be optimistic. But we’ve seen historically time and again that people have tried to make long-range predictions and not been very good at it. The human race is a funny thing. It’s always turning up surprises on you. People are capable of doing things you wouldn’t have expected to; of rising to the circumstance. And I suppose I maintain my optimism partly because my innate character is optimistic. But partly because the consequences of not recognizing our state of affairs, of not acting in time to check, seem to me so horrendous that I cannot but believe unless people realize the alternative before them they won’t take measures to make sure it doesn’t happen.
HEFFNER: Well, what took us into this little island of time in which we are so different or have enjoyed a difference from all the history of mankind?
FRIEDMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting question, and it’s one that can be spread more broadly. It’s a subject I’ve been very much interested in. From time to time in man’s history there have been golden ages. The fifth century B.C. in Greece, the Renaissance in Italy, the first Elizabethan period in England, the nineteenth century in Britain. We’re in the midst of what I regard as a golden age in the United States, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, the interesting question is how is it here, to take it out of our own context, here’s the Greek peninsula. I refer to it as Peloponnesian, and somebody reminded me that it is not. What is it? It’s a different peninsula. At any rate, the area where…
HEFFNER: We’ll accept it as such.
FRIEDMAN: Okay. It was the same people there in the sixth century B.C. and in the fifth century B.C., the same people in the fourth century as in the fifth century. Why is it in the fifth century you have this sudden flowering, this enormously productive and brilliant period; it disappears in the fourth, third, second century B.C.? Why is it? Same people. Well, I think in many ways the fundamental explanation – and now I’m simplifying and conjecturing; this isn’t a solid, well-sustained hypothesis – is that some accident comes along which wipes the slate clean of restraints that have been holding people back. In our own golden age it’s very clear what that was. It was a new continent, with new people coming, with a new form of government, with a Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. It was an opportunity in which people were unrestrained and in which the natural instincts for people to improve their lot were given freest and fullest reign.
Well, what happens, and the reason these golden ages tend to be relatively brief, the reason they last 100 years, 150 years at most, is that as time passes the slate gets filled up. It’s very much easier to introduce restrictions and restraints than it is to remove them. It’s easier to pass a low than it is to repeal a low. And so over the course of time you tend to impose these chains and restraints on yourselves, mostly for good reasons. The initial objectives are always good. That doesn’t mean the outcome is. And finally, the slate becomes so full – if I may continue to use that image – that there’s no more room to write on, and you need somehow something which will provide for another removal of restraints.
HEFFNER: What do you think would provide now for a tabula rasa again, a wiping clear of the slate?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I think the first thing that’s necessary to wipe clear the slate is to set a limit to government spending. The thing that has been encroaching more and more upon that slate is that whereas until 1928 or 9, total government spending in the United States, federal, state and local, never exceeded ten percent of our income, except in the Civil War and the First World War. It has now risen to over 40 percent of our income. If that continues…well, 40 percent is an awful lot. In Britain now it’s reached somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. The first necessity, I think, as a tactical matter, is to set an end to that. As a strategic matter, the main necessity is to have a change in the intellectual climate of opinion which will substitute a belief in the individual responsibility for the false belief in social responsibility. Let me emphasize, the problems that have arisen for us have not come from evil people who were trying in conspiracy or anything like that to enslave us. That hasn’t been our problem. Our problems have arisen from good people who were trying to do good, but trying to do good is a fundamentally flawed way. The welfare state is in many ways a noble construct, a noble concept. It’s the concept that we ought to help our fellow men. What flaws it is that it’s one thing for you to help me out of your pocket; it’s another thing for your to help me out of his pocket. And the fundamental flaw of the welfare state, in my opinion, is the idea that you should do good with somebody else’s money.