Milton Friedman’s Magical Thinking

CAMBRIDGE – Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s birth. Friedman was one of the twentieth century’s leading economists, a Nobel Prize winner who made notable contributions to monetary policy and consumption theory. But he will be remembered primarily as the visionary who provided the intellectual firepower for free-market enthusiasts during the second half of the century, and as the éminence grise behind the dramatic shift in the economic policies that took place after 1980.

At a time when skepticism about markets ran rampant, Friedman explained in clear, accessible language that private enterprise is the foundation of economic prosperity. All successful economies are built on thrift, hard work, and individual initiative. He railed against government regulations that encumber entrepreneurship and restrict markets. What Adam Smith was to the eighteenth century, Milton Friedman was to the twentieth.

As Friedman’s landmark television series “Free to Choose” was being broadcast in 1980, the world economy stood in the throes of a singular transformation. Inspired by Friedman’s ideas, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and many other government leaders began to dismantle the government restrictions and regulations that had been built up over the preceding decades.

China moved away from central planning and allowed markets to flourish – first in agricultural products and, eventually, in industrial goods. Latin America sharply reduced its trade barriers and privatized its state-owned firms. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was no doubt as to which direction the former command economies would take: towards free markets.