Milton Friedman was all about freedom until the day he died.
Abstract: July 31, 2012, is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the great economist and thinker Milton Friedman. It was Friedman who first suggested that the economic freedom of countries be measured and monitored, and The Heritage Foundation has been doing so since 1995 in its Index of Economic Freedom. Friedman’s most important legacy is unquestionably the improvement in living standards of hundreds of millions of people around the world thanks to the implementation of his theories. Unfortunately, the policies of an increasingly leviathan government have placed America on a path that diverges sharply from its historical quest for greater freedom. At Milton Friedman’s centennial, Americans should renew their commitment to economic freedom, as well as their confidence that a people who are free to choose will ensure their own future well-being.
July 31, 2012, is the one hundredth anniversary of Milton Friedman’s birth. Friedman, “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century, possibly all of it,” was the champion of the powerful idea that free markets and individual choice lead society to ultimate prosperity and overall well-being. His contributions to economic theory, and the conviction with which he espoused them, made him truly an extraordinary giant among political and economic thinkers.
Friedman’s ideas and writings earned him the Nobel Prize in economics, but his greatest legacy is unquestionably the improvement in living standards of people around the globe who have benefited from the implementation of his theories, even though they may have never read one of his books, attended one of his lectures, or even heard his name. As Friedman’s ideas have been translated into public policy in countries around the globe, they have served as the invisible hand guiding—no, allowing—millions to pursue their individual dreams, endowed with greater economic and political freedom. In reviewing Friedman’s monumental Capitalism and Freedom five decades ago, The Economist magazine called the book “ideal reading for politicians of either party in this country, not because it would convince them, but because it challenges the reader to sort out his own ideas more fundamentally.”
The Heritage Foundation, whose policy vision is “to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish,” is proud and honored to cherish and spread the legacy of Friedman’s powerful ideas for innovative policy solutions. As Dr. Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, pointed out in a tribute to Friedman in 2006:
Over the last 30 years, Friedman enjoyed a close relationship with The Heritage Foundation. He was the featured speaker at the 1979 dedication of our headquarters building, our 1983 10th anniversary “Heritage 10” celebration, and other occasions. In 1998, I awarded Rose and Milton Friedman The Heritage Foundation’s Clare Boothe Luce Award, our most distinguished honor. Friedman and Heritage have been closely linked in the policy arena for a very long time.
Indeed, many of Friedman’s perspectives and policy ideas are not only far-reaching, but truly enduring throughout generations via his own publications, as well as through others’ countless scholarly researches, whose underlying theses trace back to Friedman’s insights.
The Heritage Foundation’s numerous innovative research publications are no exception. Friedman’s economic, philosophical, and political writing has inspired decades of Heritage work in such diverse areas as welfare reform, competition in education, budget reform, and free trade.
The Index of Economic Freedom: Friedman’s Wisdom Around the World
People across the globe are particularly indebted to Milton Friedman for his role in championing economic freedom, and that effort lives on in The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom. Friedman elaborated “the role of competitive capitalism—the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market—as a system of economic freedom.” Indeed, it was Friedman who first suggested that economic freedom of countries around the world be measured and monitored.
The Index,a data-driven policy guide that empirically evaluates countries’ economic policies and demonstrates why economic freedom matters, was first published in 1995. Since then, the Index has continued to echo many of Friedman’s insights on the power of freedom, documenting reform efforts, and monitoring ups and downs of economic freedom around the world. Dr. Kim Holmes, the founding editor of the Index of Economic Freedom, observed that the Index is “not only the first comprehensive economic freedom index, but one that has continued to grow in importance ever since,” offering “many examples of what economic freedom can do.”
To many who have long tracked economic freedom, the years since 2008 have served as a vivid reminder of the continuing struggle between the state and the free market. In times of uncertainty, it may be natural that people will look to their governments for answers. Yet the long-term solutions to our current economic problems do not lie in more government controls and regulations. They lie in a return to free-market principles.
Perhaps the most critical lesson of the past four years of ever-growing government intrusion into America’s free-market system is that the fundamental superiority and value of economic liberty must be steadfastly reiterated, or even re-taught, to many political leaders and policymakers.
The Index offers plenty of evidence of the lasting values of freedom that Milton Friedman so keenly articulated and advocated.
Greater Prosperity. Friedman told an interviewer in 1979:
In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about…they have had capitalism and largely free trade…. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear: that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.
As the Index has repeatedly illustrated over the past 18 years, the relationship between economic freedom and prosperity is strongly positive. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is much higher in countries with greater economic freedom. On average, economies rated “free” or “mostly free” enjoy incomes that are more than double the average levels in all other countries, and more than seven times higher than the incomes of “repressed” economies (see Chart 1).
More important, a sustained commitment to economic freedom is critical to ensuring economic growth and prosperity. Not only is a higher level of economic freedom clearly associated with a higher level of per capita income, but countries’ improvements in economic freedom also increase their income growth rates, ensuring economic and social progress (see Chart 2).
Also notably, as Friedman suggested, true economic freedom requires free markets at home and free trade around the world. Trade drives prosperity, providing greater economic opportunity in countries that choose to embrace free-trade policies. On average, economies with the most trade freedom have the highest per capita GDP (see Chart 3).
Promoting Well-Being. Of course, life is not just about money or wealth. As Friedman observed:“It is in the free societies that there has been a far greater development of the nonmaterial, spiritual, artistic aspects of well-being.”
In case after case, Friedman keenly observed that government interventions in free markets are not only futile, but tend to generate the exact opposite outcomes of their intended purpose. He called this unseen force that makes things go terribly and perversely wrong with government social programs the “invisible foot.”
It is economic freedom that effectively improves overall well-being for a greater number of people. The Index has documented various tangible non-materialistic benefits of living in freer societies administrated by limited government.
As Friedman witnessed again and again, not only are higher levels of economic freedom associated with higher material prosperity, greater economic freedom also strongly correlates with overall well-being, which takes into account such factors as health, education, and personal safety (see Chart 4).
Achieving Political Freedom. As Friedman wrote:
Economic freedom plays a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.”
The Index has empirically explored this critical relationship between economic freedom and political freedom or democratic governance. As illustrated in Chart 5, there is a strongly positive correlation between the two, and little doubt that higher levels in either generally have a positive impact on the other.
Entrepreneurial Dynamism. Economic freedom makes it possible for independent sources of wealth to counterbalance political power and to cultivate a pluralistic society. In other words, economic freedom underpins and reinforces political liberty and market-based democracy.As Friedman stated, “The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.”
As the Index has demonstrated, economic freedom is highly correlated with entrepreneurial activity in the private sector, creating new jobs and increasing opportunities and choices for individuals in advancing their own well-being (see Chart 6). When individuals are allowed to decide themselves how best to pursue their dreams and aspirations, their collective achievements driven by individual choices, not by government mandates, add up to a better society for all.
To put it differently, economic freedom is positively linked to innovation that is often nurtured by free enterprise, not by central planning (see Chart 7). The proven path to revitalizing economic growth is to advance economic freedom by promoting policies that generate a virtuous cycle of innovation, job creation, and productivity growth that, in turn, helps to advance social and economic evolution.
Time to Renew Commitment to Greater Economic Freedom
Milton Friedman was confident that freedom would prevail, as indicated in the conclusion of Free to Choose,a powerful restatement of his beliefs co-authored with his wife Rose:
Fortunately, we are waking up. We are again recognizing the dangers of an over-governed society, coming to understand that good objectives can be perverted by bad means, that reliance on the freedom of people to control their own lives in accordance with their own values is the surest way to achieve the full potential of a great society. Fortunately, also, we are as a people still free to choose which way we should go—whether to continue along the road we have been following to ever bigger government, or to call a halt and change direction.
Though stated three decades ago, the Friedmans’ keen observations are shockingly relevant to today’s challenging time for America. The reckless and populist policy choices of an increasingly leviathan government have placed the United States on a path that diverges sharply from its historical quest for greater freedom. Worse, the system of competitive capitalism that is responsible for America’s unprecedented prosperity is being replaced by a crony capitalism that encourages the concentration of power that Friedman warned was one of the greatest threats to freedom.
Still, there are signs that, as in Friedman’s day, the American public is waking up, and maybe—just maybe—one can be optimistic that freedom will again prevail in America.
As Dr. Feulner and Heritage Foundation trustee Brian Tracy pointed out in their recent book, The American Spirit, “Our inherent optimism is alive and well in every man, woman, and child in the country, to one degree or another. That optimism is a key component of our future success as individuals and as a nation.”
So, at Milton Friedman’s centennial birthday, Americans should renew this country’s commitment to economic freedom, as well as their confidence that a people who are free to choose will make the right decisions to ensure their future prosperity and happiness.
—Anthony B. Kim is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for International Trade and Economics (CITE), and Ambassador Terry Miller is Director of CITE, and the Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow in Economic Freedom, at The Heritage Foundation.