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Milton Friedman’s influence

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Milton Friedman was feted worldwide, awarded the Nobel Prize in economics by the king of Sweden and given hundreds more reasons to be full of himself.

But he wasn't. He was full of ideas.

He created within the department of economics at the University of Chicago not only an alternative to the prevailing economic thought of the day but a real spirit of genuine inquiry. Come with any idea you want, no matter how radical. Just be sure it can hold up under intense scrutiny and debate.

In an age when it seems many universities have become bastions of politically correct groupthink, that is a much more novel approach than it ought to be.

Friedman, who died Thursday at the age of 94, had an enormous influence on the world — much more than the average person understands. For instance, his ideas fueled the conservative revolution that gave rise to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He is largely responsible for the United States having an all-volunteer army, arguing that a draft creates tensions that ultimately hurt the nation's military might. He is responsible for payroll withholding for income taxes, something he devised to help fund the war effort in the '40s and then later regretted because in peacetime it made tax increases far too easy.

He was the driving force behind choice in education — the voucher and tuition-tax-credit plans that have taken hold in many parts of the world (albeit not in Utah). He devised the earned-income tax credit to enhance the incomes of poor people. And all of this was in addition to his anti-statist theories that have gradually pulled the United States and other nations away from the government-centered theories of Lord Keynes, which held sway through much of the early and mid-20th century.

But Friedman's real genius was in his ability to communicate. Ideas, no matter how profound, matter only if they can be explained. Friedman could take his complicated theories — which explained the causes of the Great Depression in relation to the supply of money, for instance — and tell them in a way average people understood.

This gift was observed first-hand by a Deseret Morning News editor who interviewed him in 2002 about alternatives to public education. "First of all," Friedman began, "do not call it 'public' education. It is 'government' education."

To Friedman, words mattered. This helped him sell many books and host a PBS series in 1980. It also guaranteed that his influence will be felt far beyond his mortal life.