Today is Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday. Friedman was the greatest libertarian economist of the last century, and one of the greatest economists of all time, regardless of viewpoint. In my view, what separated Friedman from most other great economists, and also most other leading libertarian thinkers, was his ability to speak to both expert and popular audiences effectively. Few other great scholars – and no libertarian ones – combined these two skills as effectively as he did.
Friedman’s work is also remarkable for the way most of it remains relevant even decades after he initially wrote it. Capitalism and Freedom was first published in 1962. But very little of it seems dated today.
Friedman was not the libertarian thinker who had the most influence on me personally. But he probably had a greater impact on scholars, policy-makers, and interested laypeople than any other.
I commented on Friedman’s legacy in more detail in this post, which includes links to earlier posts about Friedman.
Economist Bryan Caplan has posted a thoughtful tribute here:
Today would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday. I only met the man long enough for him to sign my copy of Capitalism and Freedom, but he’s been a tremendous influence on me.
All of my other adolescent intellectual heroes – Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises – gradually came to seem less impressive in my eyes. But the greatness of Milton Friedman is as constant as the Northern Star. Whether he’s calling for the abolition of medical licensing in Capitalism and Freedom, or analyzing the co-movement of the money supply and money velocity in A Monetary History of the United States, Friedman takes controversial stances, and actually convinces people.
Why does Friedman stand apart from my other idols? In the end, it’s the absence of obscurantism. Friedman makes his points as simply, clearly, and bluntly as possible. He never rambles on. He never hides behind academic jargon. He almost never makes bizarre philosophical assertions to explain away obvious facts. He never tries to win fair weather converts by speaking in vague generalities about “liberty.” Friedman never turned out to have feet of clay, because he played every game barefoot.
Many libertarians look down on Friedman for his moderation and statist compromises. I’m about as radical as libertarians come, but these critics have never impressed me. By any normal standard, Friedman was a very radical libertarian indeed. If you’re going to take points off for a few deviations, remember to give him extra credit for earnestly trying to convince people who didn’t already agree with him. His arguments for liberty weren’t just intellectually compelling; he made them with humor and common decency.
UPDATE: David Henderson has some interesting thoughts here.