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Milton Friedman on Freedom - A New Book

John Taylor - Economics One Blog
March 4, 2017

Milton Friedman on Freedom is a delightful new book of Friedman’s best workson freedom compiled and edited by Robert Leeson and Charles Palm.  It is a delight to have these writings in one lean volume, and the book also highlights a new and much larger online collection consisting of all of Friedman’s published and significant unpublished writings, The Collected Works of Milton Friedman compiled by Leeson and Palm, together with selected audio-visual and other unpublished materials from the papers of Milton Friedman in the Hoover Institution Archive.

Both the book and online collection are sorely needed now. People often channel Friedman to support their own views, even if they are contrary to his actual views!  So he deserves to be read in the original, and readers will find the book refreshing even if they are already familiar with Friedman.

Leeson and Palm arrange the essays chronologically, starting with one of Friedman’s first articles on freedom from the 1950s where he notes that liberalism in the classical sense “takes freedom of the individual—really, of the family—as its ultimate value.”

Friedman wrote often about the connection between economic freedom and other freedoms, and he believed that “economic freedom, in and of itself, is an extremely important part of total freedom.”  What we sometimes forget, however, is that he thought that the loss of total freedom caused by restrictions on economic freedom were as much a concern as the loss of economic prosperity caused by such restrictions.  His essays provide many examples that show how reductions in economic freedom through government subsidies or regulations stifle freedom of speech. He refers to President Ford’s WIN (Whip Inflation Now) program, about which, though “pretty silly,” no business leader spoke against.  The reason, Friedman argued, was a concern about such things as the “IRS getting ready to come and audit” or “the Department of Justice standing only too ready to launch an anti-trust suit.”

In particularly interesting essays in the book, Friedman contrasts his views with other champions of freedom. He argues for an empirical approach—in which one is tolerant of views one disagrees with and tests them with data—as a way to help resolve differences. He writes that there is a “utopian strand in libertarianism. You cannot simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.”

Friedman warns that periods of freedom are very rare in the long span of history, especially in his essay “The Fragility of Freedom.” Friedman, along with his wife Rose, argues that there is a close connection over time between ideas and practical policy applications, but there is a long lag between the two: The “Rise of Laissez-Faire” from 1840 to 1930 followed the “Adam Smith Tide” that began in 1776. The “The Rise of the Welfare State” from 1930 to 1980, followed the “Fabian Tide” that began in 1885. The “Resurgence of Free Markets” starting in 1980 followed the “Hayek Tide.”   But, as I write in the introduction to the Leeson-Palm book, this most recent resurgence appears to have been cut short as policy has moved away from the principles of economic freedom in recent years as shown by this table of United States data in economic freedom from the Fraser Institute.

Perhaps the tide is now turning again. I hope so. But, in any case, this timely book tells us there is never a time for complacency.