A Free-Market Energy Blog

Milton Friedman's 100th: Exploring His Wisdom for the Ages (Part I: Worldview)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- July 31, 2012

[Ed. note: Milton Friedman’s views will be further explored in Part II on energy and Part III on political capitalism.]

“Our central theme in public advocacy has been the promotion of human freedom … [It] underlies our opposition to rent control and general wage and price controls, our support for educational choice, privatizing radio and television channels, an all-volunteer army, limitation of government spending, legalization of drugs, privatizing social security, free trade, and the deregulation of industry and private life to the fullest extent possible.”

– Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People (1998), p. 588.

Today some 150 events are taking place in the U.S. and internationally to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman (1912–2006). I will be hosting a Houston event this evening with presentations by myself and University of Houston economist Thomas Mayor on Friedman’s many contributions that, in sum, opened the door for libertarian thought in academia and within the wider public.

The Wikipedia entry for Friedman begins as follows:

Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) was an American economist, statistician, and author who taught at the University of Chicago for more than three decades. He was a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and is known for his research on consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and the complexity of stabilization policy.

As a leader of the Chicago school of economics, he influenced the research agenda of the economics profession. A survey of economists ranked Friedman as the second most popular economist of the twentieth century behind John Maynard Keynes, and The Economist described him as “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it.”

Many other biographies can be accessed on Friedman; this post will continue with some Friedman quotations of import on various topics except for those to come in Part II (energy) and Part III (political and special-interest capitalism).

The Case for Liberty

“The strongest argument for free enterprise is that it prevents anybody from having too much power. Whether that person is a government official, a trade union official, or a business executive. If forces them to put up or shut up. They either have to deliver the goods, produce something that people are willing to pay for, are willing to buy, or else they have to go into a different business.”

“A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”

“I start from a belief in individual freedom and that derives fundamentally from a belief in the limitations of our knowledge [and] from a belief—that nobody can be sure that what he believes is really right. So the most attractive position—is putting individual freedom first.

Results, Not Intentions

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than by their results.”

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

“The contrast between the ostensible objectives of government programs and their actual results—a contrast that has been a persistent theme of earlier chapters—is so pervasive, so widespread, that even many of the strongest supporters of big government have had to acknowledged government failure—though their solution almost always turns out to be still bigger government.”

Forced Equality

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

Tyranny of the Status Quo

“There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Business Behavior

“Competition does not protect the consumer because businessman are more soft-hearted than the bureaucrats or because they are more altruistic or generous, or even because they are more competent, but only because it is in the self-interest of the businessman to serve the consumer.”

“What about the danger of monopoly that led to the antitrust laws? …. The most effective way to counter it is … through removing existing barriers to international trade.”


“The first law of bureaucracy—the only feasible way of doing anything is the way it is being done.”

“The period … spent in Washington was … my first involvement in the actual making of government policy…. I came to understand firsthand the pull that Washington has for so many intellectuals … and also experienced the manipulation, dishonestly, and self-seeking that are an intrinsic part of the process. The disinterested pursuer of the public interest and the interested promoter of self are not always easy to distinguish.”

“When you stand before a civil servant, is there any real doubt who is the servant and who is the master.”

Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own.”

On Government Inefficiency

“I say thank God for government waste. If government is doing bad things, it’s only the waste that prevents the harm from being greater.”

Government: More or Less?

“A government program seems the solution only because government has been blocking at every turn the effective free market solution.”

On Scholarship

“[These] standards of scholarship—attention to detail, concern with scrupulous accuracy, checking of sources, and above all, openness to criticism—… have affected the whole of my scholarship.”

“I have a single rule. What I say to one person, I say to everyone. I never say anything off the record.”

“Sloppy writing reflects sloppy thinking.”

“All learning is ultimately self-learning.”

“The true test of any scholar’s work is not what his contemporaries say, but what happens to his work in the next 25 or 50 years. And the thing that I will really be proud of is if some of the work I have done is still cited in the text books long after I am gone.”


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