Milton Friedman at Hillsdale College 2006 (part 2)

Milton Friedman at Hillsdale College 2006

July 2006

Free to Choose: A Conversation with Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman
Economist

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.

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LA: In Free to Choose you discuss Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which you relate to the great task that the American people face. Like Lincoln, you argue that a house divided against itself cannot stand: America is going to be a government intervention country or it’s going to be a free market country, but it cannot continue indefinitely as a mixture of both. Do you still believe that?

MF: Yes, I very much believe that, and I believe that we’ve been making some headway since Free to Choose appeared. However, even though it is real headway compared to what was happening before, we are mostly holding ground.

LA: What do you think are the major factors behind the economic growth we have experienced since the publication of Free to Choose?

MF: Economic growth since that time has been phenomenal, which has very little to do with most of what we’ve been talking about in terms of the conflict between government and private enterprise. It has much more to do with the technical problem of establishing sound monetary policy. The economic situation during the past 20 years has been unprecedented in the history of the world. You will find no other 20-year period in which prices have been as stable—relatively speaking—in which there has been as little variability in price levels, in which inflation has been so well-controlled, and in which output has gone up as regularly. You hear all this talk about economic difficulties, when the fact is we are at the absolute peak of prosperity in the history of the world. Never before have so many people had as much as they do today. I believe a large part of that is to be attributed to better monetary policy. The improved policy is a result of the acceptance of the view that inflation is a monetary phenomenon, not a real phenomenon. We have accepted the view that central banks are primarily responsible for maintaining stable prices and nothing else.

LA: Do you think the Great Depression was triggered by bad monetary policy at a crucial moment?

MF: Absolutely. Unfortunately, it is still the case that if you ask people what caused the Great Depression, nine out of ten will probably tell you it was a failure of business. But it’s absolutely clear that the Depression was a failure of government and not a failure of business.

LA: You don’t think the Smoot-Hawley tariff caused the Depression?

MF: No. I think the Smoot-Hawley tariff was a bad law. I think it did harm. But the Smoot-Hawley tariff by itself would not have made one quarter of the labor force unemployed. However, reducing the quantity of money by one third did make a quarter of the labor force unemployed. When I graduated from undergraduate college in 1932, I was baffled by the fact that there were idle machines and idle men and you couldn’t get them together. Those men wanted to cooperate; they wanted to work; they wanted to produce what they wore; and they wanted to produce the food they ate. Yet something had gone wrong: The government was mismanaging the money supply.

LA: Do you think our government has learned its lesson about how to manage the money supply?

MF: I think that the lesson has been learned, but I don’t think it will last forever. Sooner or later, government will want to raise funds without imposing taxes. It will want to spend money it does not have. So I hesitate to join those who are predicting two percent inflation for the next 20 years. The temptation for government to lay its hands on that money is going to be very hard to resist. The fundamental problem is that you shouldn’t have an institution such as the Federal Reserve, which depends for its success on the abilities of its chairman. My first preference would be to abolish the Federal Reserve, but that’s not going to happen.

LA: I want to talk now about education and especially about vouchers, because I know they are dear to your heart. Why do you think teachers unions oppose vouchers?

MF: The president of the National Education Association was once asked when his union was going to do something about students. He replied that when the students became members of the union, the union would take care of them. And that was a correct answer. Why? His responsibility as president of the NEA was to serve the members of his union, not to serve public purposes. I give him credit: The trade union has been very effective in serving its members. However, in the process, they’ve destroyed American education. But you see, education isn’t the union’s function. It’s our fault for allowing the union to pursue its agenda. Consider this fact: There are two areas in the United States that suffer from the same disease—education is one and health care is the other. They both suffer from the disease that takes a system that should be bottom-up and converts it into a system that is top-down. Education is a simple case. It isn’t the public purpose to build brick schools and have students taught there. The public purpose is to provide education. Think of it this way: If you want to subsidize the production of a product, there are two ways you can do it. You can subsidize the producer or you can subsidize the consumer. In education, we subsidize the producer—the school. If you subsidize the student instead—the consumer—you will have competition. The student could choose the school he attends and that would force schools to improve and to meet the demands of their students.

LA: Although you discuss many policy issues in Free to Choose, you have turned much of your attention to education, and to vouchers as a method of education reform. Why is that your focus?

MF: I don’t see how we can maintain a decent society if we have a world split into haves and have-nots, with the haves subsidizing the have-nots. In our current educational system, close to 30 percent of the youngsters who start high school never finish. They are condemned to low-income jobs. They are condemned to a situation in which they are going to be at the bottom. That leads in turn to a divisive society; it leads to a stratified society rather than one of general cooperation and general understanding. The effective literacy rate in the United States today is almost surely less than it was 100 years ago. Before government had any involvement in education, the majority of youngsters were schooled, literate, and able to learn. It is a disgrace that in a country like the United States, 30 percent of youngsters never graduate from high school. And I haven’t even mentioned those who drop out in elementary school. It’s a disgrace that there are so many people who can’t read and write. It’s hard for me to see how we can continue to maintain a decent and free society if a large subsection of that society is condemned to poverty and to handouts.

LA: Do you think the voucher campaign is going well?

MF: No. I think it’s going much too slowly. What success we have had is almost entirely in the area of income-limited vouchers. There are two kinds of vouchers: One is a charity voucher that is limited to people below a certain income level. The other is an education voucher, which, if you think of vouchers as a way of transforming the educational industry, is available to everybody. How can we make vouchers available to everybody? First, education ought to be a state and local matter, not a federal matter. The 1994 Contract with America called for the elimination of the Department of Education. Since then, the budget for the Department of Education has tripled. This trend must be reversed. Next, education ought to be a parental matter. The responsibility for educating children is with parents. But in order to make it a parental matter, we must have a situation in which parents are Free to Choose the schools their children attend. They aren’t free to do that now. Today the schools pick the children. Children are assigned to schools by geography—by where they live. By contrast, I would argue that if the government is going to spend money on education, the money ought to travel with the children. The objective of such an expenditure ought to be educated children, not beautiful buildings. The way to accomplish this is to have a universal voucher. As I said in 1955, we should take the amount of money that we’re now spending on education, divide it by the number of children, and give that amount of money to each parent. After all, that’s what we’re spending now, so we might as well let parents spend it in the form of vouchers.

LA: I have one more question for you. You describe a society in which people look after themselves because they know the most about themselves, and they will flourish if you let them. You, however, are a crusader for the rights of others. For example, you say in Free to Choose—and it’s a very powerful statement—a tiny minority is what matters. So is it one of the weaknesses of the free market that it requires certain extremely talented and disinterested people who can defend it?

MF: No, that’s not right. The self-interest of the kind of people you just described is promoting public policy. That’s what they’re interested in doing. For example, what was my self-interest in economics? My self-interest to begin with was to understand the real mystery and puzzle that was the Great Depression. My self-interest was to try to understand why that happened, and that’s what I enjoyed doing—that was my self-interest. Out of that I grew to learn some things—to have some knowledge. Following that, my self-interest was to see that other people understood the same things and took appropriate action.

LA: Do you define self-interest as what the individual wants?

MF: Yes, self-interest is what the individual wants. Mother Teresa, to take one example, operated on a completely self-interested basis. Self-interest does not mean narrow self-interest. Self-interest does not mean monetary self-interest. Self-interest means pursuing those things that are valuable to you but which you can also persuade others to value. Such things very often go beyond immediate material interest.

LA: Does that mean self-interest is a synonym for self-sacrifice?

MF: If you want to see how pervasive this sort of self-interest is that I’m describing, look at the enormous amount of money contributed after Hurricane Katrina. That was a tremendous display of self-interest: The self-interest of people in that case was to help others. Self-interest, rightly understood, works for the benefit of society as a whole.


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