Milton Friedman at Hillsdale College 2006
Milton Friedman is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1946-1976. Dr. Friedman received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Science in 1976, and the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. He served as an unofficial adviser to presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He is the author of numerous books, including Two Lucky People (with Rose Friedman).
The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn and Milton Friedman, which took place on May 22, 2006, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, California, during a two-day Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar celebrating the 25th anniversary of Milton and Rose Friedman’s book, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement.
LARRY ARNN: In Free to Choose, in the chapter on “The Tyranny of Controls,” you argue that protectionism and government intervention in general breed conflict and that free markets breed cooperation. How do you reconcile this statement with the fact that we think of free markets as being competitive?
MILTON FRIEDMAN: They are competitive, but they are competitive over a broad range. The question is, how do you make money in a free market? You only make money if you can provide someone with something he or she is willing to pay for. You can’t make money any other way. Therefore, in order to make money, you have to promote cooperation. You have to do something that your customer wants you to do. You don’t do it because he orders you to. You don’t do it because he threatens to hit you over the head if you don’t. You do it because you offer him a better deal than he can get anywhere else. Now that’s promoting cooperation. But there are other people who are trying to sell to him, too. They’re your competitors. So there is competition among sellers, but cooperation between sellers and buyers.
LA: In the chapter on “The Tyranny of Controls,” you seem gloomy about the prospects for India. Why?
MF: I was in India in 1955 on behalf of the American government to serve as an economic adviser to the minister of finance. I concluded then that India had tremendous potential, but none of it was being achieved. That fact underlies the passage you are referring to in Free to Choose. Remember, Free to Choose aired in January 1980, and as of that time there had been no progress in India. The population had grown, but the standard of living was as low as it had been in 1955. Now, in the past ten or fifteen years, there has been movement in India, and maybe those hidden potentials I saw in 1955 will finally be achieved. But, there is still great uncertainty there.
LA: In that same chapter, you wrote the following about China: “Letting the genie of…initiative out of the bottle even to this limited extent will give rise to political problems that, sooner or later, are likely to produce a reaction toward greater authoritarianism. The opposite outcome, the collapse of communism and its replacement by a market system, seems far less likely.” What do you think about that statement today?
MF: I’m much more optimistic about China today than I was then. China has made great progress since that time. It certainly has not achieved complete political freedom, but it has come closer. It certainly has a great deal more economic freedom. I visited China for the first time in 1980 right after the publication of Free to Choose. I had been invited by the government to lecture on how to stop inflation, among other things. China at that time was in a pretty poor state. The hotel we stayed in showed every sign of being run by a communist regime. We returned to China twice, and each time, the changes were tremendous. In 1980, everybody was wearing the dull and drab Mao costume; there were bicycles all over the place and very few cars. Eight years later, we started to see some color in the clothes, there were things available for sale that hadn’t been available before, and free markets were breaking out all over the place. China has continued to grow at a dramatic rate. But in the section of Free to Choose you refer to, I talked about the political conflict that was coming—and that broke out in Tiananmen Square. The final outcome in China will not be decided until there is a showdown between the political tyranny on the one hand and economic freedom on the other—they cannot coexist.
LA: Let me ask you about demographic trends. Columnist Mark Steyn writes that in ten years, 40 percent of young men in the world are going to be living in oppressed Muslim countries. What do you think the effect of that is going to be?
MF: What happens will depend on whether we succeed in bringing some element of greater economic freedom to those Muslim countries. Just as India in 1955 had great but unrealized potential, I think the Middle East is in a similar situation today. In part this is because of the curse of oil. Oil has been a blessing from one point of view, but a curse from another. Almost every country in the Middle East that is rich in oil is a despotism.
LA: Why do you think that is so?
MF: One reason, and one reason only—the oil is owned by the governments in question. If that oil were privately owned and thus someone’s private property, the political outcome would be freedom rather than tyranny. This is why I believe the first step following the 2003 invasion of Iraq should have been the privatization of the oil fields. If the government had given every individual over 21 years of age equal shares in a corporation that had the right and responsibility to make appropriate arrangements with foreign oil companies for the purpose of discovering and developing Iraq’s oil reserves, the oil income would have flowed in the form of dividends to the people—the shareholders—rather than into government coffers. This would have provided an income to the whole people of Iraq and thereby prevented the current disputes over oil between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, because oil income would have been distributed on an individual rather than a group basis.
LA: Many Middle Eastern societies have a kind of tribal or theocratic basis and long-held habits of despotic rule that make it difficult to establish a system of contract between strangers. Is it your view that the introduction of free markets in such places could overcome those obstacles?
MF: Eventually, yes. I think that nothing is so important for freedom as recognizing in the law each individual’s natural right to property, and giving individuals a sense that they own something that they’re responsible for, that they have control over, and that they can dispose of.
LA: Is there an area here in the United States in which we have not been as aggressive as we should in promoting property rights and free markets?
MF: Yes, in the field of medical care. We have a socialist-communist system of distributing medical care. Instead of letting people hire their own physicians and pay them, no one pays his or her own medical bills. Instead, there’s a third party payment system. It is a communist system and it has a communist result. Despite this, we’ve had numerous miracles in medical science. From the discovery of penicillin, to new surgical techniques, to MRIs and CAT scans, the last 30 or 40 years have been a period of miraculous change in medical science. On the other hand, we’ve seen costs skyrocket. Nobody is happy: physicians don’t like it, patients don’t like it. Why? Because none of them are responsible for themselves. You no longer have a situation in which a patient chooses a physician, receives a service, gets charged, and pays for it. There is no direct relation between the patient and the physician. The physician is an employee of an insurance company or an employee of the government. Today, a third party pays the bills. As a result, no one who visits the doctor asks what the charge is going to be—somebody else is going to take care of that. The end result is third party payment and, worst of all, third party treatment.
LA: Following the recent expansion in prescription drug benefits and Medicare, what hope is there for a return to the free market in medical care?
MF: It does seem that markets are on the defensive, but there is hope. The expansion of drug benefits was accompanied by the introduction of health savings accounts—HSAs. That’s the one hopeful sign in the medical area, because it’s a step in the direction of making people responsible for themselves and for their own care. No one spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.
LA: On the subject of Social Security, let me read to you a passage from Free to Choose: “As we have gone through the literature on Social Security, we have been shocked at the arguments that have been used to defend the program. Individuals who would not lie to their children, their friends, their colleagues, whom all of us would trust implicitly in the most important personal dealings, have propagated a false view of Social Security. Their intelligence and exposure to contrary views make it hard to believe that they have done so unintentionally and innocently. Apparently they have regarded themselves as an elite group within society that knows what is good for other people better than those people do for themselves.” What do you think of these words today?
MF: I stick by every word there. But there has been progress since then. Let me explain: Free to Choose was produced and shown on television for the first time in January 1980. President Reagan was elected in November 1980. To get a clear picture of what has happened since the publication of Free to Choose, we really need to look at what happened before and after the election of Ronald Reagan. Before Reagan, non-defense government spending—on the federal, state and local levels—as a percentage of national income was rising rapidly. Between the early 1950s and 1980, we were in a period of what I would call galloping socialism that showed no signs of slowing. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, there was an abrupt and immediate halt to this expansion of government. But even under Reagan, government spending as a percentage of national income didn’t come down: It has held constant from that time to now. Although the early years of the current Bush presidency did see spending increases, national income has risen, too. We have achieved some success at our first task: stopping the growth of government. The second task is to shrink government spending and make government smaller. We haven’t done that yet, but we are making some progress. I should also mention as a cautionary tale that, prior to Reagan, the number of pages in the Federal Register was on the rise, but Reagan succeeded in reducing this number substantially. However, once Reagan was out of office, the number of pages in the Register began to rise even more quickly. We have not really succeeded in that area.
There have been real changes in our society since Free to Choose was published. I’m not attributing them to Free to Choose—I’m not saying that’s the reason—but in general, there has been a complete change in public opinion. This change is probably due as much to the collapse of the Soviet Union as it is to what Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman or somebody else wrote. Socialism used to mean the ownership and operation of the means of production, but nobody gives it that meaning today. There is no country in the world attempting to be socialist in that sense except North Korea. And perhaps Russia is moving in that direction. Conversely, opinion has not shifted far enough in terms of the dangers of big government and the deleterious effects it can have, and that’s where we’re facing future problems. This clarifies the task facing institutions such as Hillsdale College: We must make clear that the only reason we have our freedom is because government is so inefficient. If the government were efficient in spending the approximately 40 percent of our income that it currently manages, we would enjoy less freedom than we do today.