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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Man Who Saved Capitalism

Stephen Moore
Milton Friedman, who would have turned 100 on Tuesday, helped to make free markets popular again in the 20th century. His ideas are even more important today.

It's a tragedy that Milton Friedman—born 100 years ago on July 31—did not live long enough to combat the big-government ideas that have formed the core of Obamanomics. It's perhaps more tragic that our current president, who attended the University of Chicago where Friedman taught for decades, never fell under the influence of the world's greatest champion of the free market. Imagine how much better things would have turned out, for Mr. Obama and the country.

Friedman was a constant presence on these pages until his death in 2006 at age 94. If he could, he would surely be skewering today's $5 trillion expansion of spending and debt to create growth—and exposing the confederacy of economic dunces urging more of it.

In the 1960s, Friedman famously explained that "there's no such thing as a free lunch." If the government spends a dollar, that dollar has to come from producers and workers in the private economy. There is no magical "multiplier effect" by taking from productive Peter and giving to unproductive Paul. As obvious as that insight seems, it keeps being put to the test. Obamanomics may be the most expensive failed experiment in free-lunch economics in American history.

Equally illogical is the superstition that government can create prosperity by having Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke print more dollars. In the very short term, Friedman proved, excess money fools people with an illusion of prosperity. But the market quickly catches on, and there is no boost in output, just higher prices.

Next to Ronald Reagan, in the second half of the 20th century there was no more influential voice for economic freedom world-wide than Milton Friedman. Small in stature but a giant intellect, he was the economist who saved capitalism by dismembering the ideas of central planning when most of academia was mesmerized by the creed of government as savior.

Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for 1976—at a time when almost all the previous prizes had gone to socialists. This marked the first sign of the intellectual comeback of free-market economics since the 1930s, when John Maynard Keynes hijacked the profession. Friedman's 1971 book "A Monetary History of the United States," written with Anna Schwartz (who died on June 21), was a masterpiece and changed the way we think about the role of money.

More influential than Friedman's scholarly writings was his singular talent for communicating the virtues of the free market to a mass audience. His two best-selling books, "Capitalism and Freedom" (1962) and "Free to Choose" (1980), are still wildly popular. His videos on YouTube on issues like the morality of capitalism are brilliant and timeless.

In the early 1990s, Friedman visited poverty-stricken Mexico City for a Cato Institute forum. I remember the swirling controversy ginned up by the media and Mexico's intelligentsia: How dare this apostle of free-market economics be given a public forum to speak to Mexican citizens about his "outdated" ideas? Yet when Milton arrived in Mexico he received a hero's welcome as thousands of business owners, students and citizen activists hungry for his message encircled him everywhere he went, much like crowds for a modern rock star.

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