Milton Friedman: A Sane Voice for Our Times

John ArmstrongEconomy/Economics

The late Milton Friedman (1912-2006), winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, was one of the best and the brightest of the twentieth century. He not only impacted scholars and academics but he also impacted the lives of ordinary people the world over, but not in ordinary ways. You would be hard pressed, if the truth is known, to name one economist in our lifetime who impacted so many lives for so much good as Milton Friedman. I am utterly serious in saying this. I am thus appalled at how few Christians know or care about the thought of this man and how much it contributed to the good of so many in this world.

You may say, at first glance, how can you write this when Milton Friedman was an agnostic who disavowed the role of religion in economics so consistently. I answer, "The man’s ideas were right and his religious views have nothing to do with the rightness of what he taught about economics." He did recognize that values were necessary to sustain a solid economy but he saw no need for religion in order to have good values. I find this logic tragic but it doesn’t alter the fact that the good he did in the world was very significant. I wish more Christians would learn from Friedman and pay attention the the obvious truths that he pointed out over the course of his lifetime.

Friedman was, if nothing else, a public intellectual. He was not content to just write books and lecture. He wanted to deal with public issues and solve major economic problems. His 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, is a classic. Everyone should read it before they make broad statements about the economy and the connection of economic issues to Christian faith. Originally a supporter of high taxes, and the New Deal, Friedman came to see that advocacy of the free market was the best way to lift the economy and improve the material well-being of the most people. He argued that if capitalism was introduced into totalitarian countries political freedom would tend to be the result. By the 1980s Friedman’s ideas were popular and his impact was at its greatest when President Ronald Reagan accepted many of his ideas about monetary policy, taxation, privatization and deregulation.

What separated Friedman from many other intellectual writers on economics was his ability to appeal to ordinary people and his ability to make the obvious even more obvious again and again. Several countries were profoundly influenced by Friedman and their economic success stories are akin to legend, at least to serious students of the subject. One thinks of his influence in Chile, Iceland and especially Estonia, where the 32-year old prime minister, Matt Laar, claimed the only book he read on economics before taking office was Friedman’s classic, Free to Choose. Laar’s reforms are generally credited with transforming Estonia from an impoverished Soviet Republic into the "Baltic Tiger."

I mention Friedman’s life and work for two reasons. First, Christian intellectuals and ministers who teach and write desperately need to read him. The rise of a new Christian left among evangelicals must be openly challenged. Reading Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change, reminded me of this once again last week. Brian simply does not understand economic theory well at all. He wants to see countries improve themselves economically but the message he is giving out about how to do this is just wrong. His heart is in the right place, since he has compassion for the poor, but his theory is terrible. And since theory has consequences Christians need to hear different, and better, theory. I did ask Brian last year, after he made a negative public reference to market theories, "What kind of economic system would best change the African situation?" His answer was, "Some version of the free market." I told him I would never have guessed he believed this based upon what he spoke and wrote about the market and American economic policy. If you think Brian is convincing about these matters then you really owe it to yourself to read Friedman’s two most important books: Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose. You ought to read them even if you do agree with him. They are that important. 

The second reason I mention Friedman is to provide you a link to You Tube where you can see how Friedman dismantled Phil Donahue on television some years ago. You will be astounded at how the loquacious Donahue is left speechless. This is priceless stuff, even comedic if it were not so serious. Every leader in Congress ought to watch this. 

What we desperately need today are public intellectuals like Milton Friedman to take on the foolish ideas of so many people, including Christians who promote foolish statist solutions to social and economic problems. There is a role for the state in a virtuous society but Christians often think far too highly of what the state can actually accomplish, thus making them ripe for bad theory. The real solutions lie much closer to our homes, to our churches and to our local communities. Until this economic thinking is fundamentally changed we will not see the kind of impact that I believe we need to really change poor countries into productive ones. Friedman must be given a part in this recovery effort if we are to be wise stewards.