“Friedman Friday” Milton Friedman on “Firing Line” in 1968

Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan And William F. Buckley Jr.

Peter Robinson, 12.12.08, 12:01 AM EST

In a time of crisis, don’t forget what they had to say.


As the federal deficit surpasses $1 trillion, Congress debates a bailout for the Detroit automakers and President-elect Barack Obama draws up plans for a vast new stimulus package, we Americans are being asked to do something odd: Ignore the lessons of more than half a century.

Limit government spending? Resist the creation of bureaucracies? Take a skeptical view of the experts, academics and other elites who are always ready to argue that they know more about what’s good for us than we do?

Forget it.

How long this great forgetting will last, nobody can say. But if you’re reluctant to participate, permit me to suggest a small act of civil disobedience.

Print the three quotations below, put them on your refrigerator and read them once in awhile.


Milton Friedman: The political system “tends to give undue political power to small groups that have highly concentrated interests; to give greater weight to obvious, direct and immediate effects of government action than to possibly more important but concealed, indirect and delayed effects; to set in motion a process that sacrifices the general interest to serve special interests rather than the other way around. There is, as it were, an invisible hand in politics that operates in precisely the opposite direction to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.”

The general interest, sacrificed to the special interests: This is the iron law of government spending, the fundamental and everlasting equation.

Stroll down K Street, the home of Washington lobbying firms, any night this coming month; no matter how late the hour, you’ll see lights on in all the office buildings. Inside, highly paid professionals will be working with the feverish intensity of Santa’s elves. Only instead of producing gifts for good children, they’ll be scheming to grab goodies from the Obama stimulus package–billions of dollars’ worth of goodies–on behalf of the naughty adults who employ them.

Ronald Reagan: “A government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

Like so much Reagan material, this aphorism isn’t merely amusing, it makes a vital point. The New Deal, the Square Deal, the Great Society–overwhelmingly, the programs that each of these expansions of the federal government entailed remain in place today. Why?

Because federal programs not only respond to special interests (see Milton Friedman, above), they create them–each new act of largesse calling into being a new group with enough at stake to become politically organized–paying lobbyists and consultants handsome sums to keep the government dollars coming.

The Obama administration’s huge new spending package might or might not stimulate the growth of economy. It will certainly stimulate the growth of government.

William F. Buckley Jr.: “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.”

Ordinary Americans vs. the high priests of knowledge and culture. It would only make sense, you might think, to put the country in the hands of the priests. After examining the record of the closing decades of the 20th century, you’d think again.

Bigger government, higher taxes, modest defenses, détente with the Soviets–by and large, these were the policies of the intellectual establishment. During the 1970s, such policies nearly brought down the country. Limited government, tax cuts, rebuilding our defenses, standing up to the Soviets–by and large, these were the policies of ordinary Americans. During the 1980s, such policies brought down the Soviet Union.

“Jan. 20, 2009,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law) looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).”

The Obama administration, Brooks asserts, will represent “a valedictocracy.”

The rest of us may be forgiven for failing to share his enthusiasm.

Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institutionand contributor to RobinsonandLong.com, writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.

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