Sunday, 29 July 2007

My Unlikely Hero

I am perhaps an unlikely admirer of Milton Friedman. As a general rule, nice centre-left Liberal Democrats do not sing the praises of Margaret Thatcher’s second favorite economist. However, I feel that he has been much maligned and too often dismissed by people who would actually find that they agree with him on most issues. This is probably because the popular image of him is almost completely false. The heartless conservative who sides with the haves over the have nots and backed Pinochet’s dictatorship simply did not exist.

Many people forget that Friedman was far from being a standard conservative, who fights tooth and nail for their freedom to make ‘loads of money’ while trampling on the rights of foreigners and non-conformists. His commitment to socially liberal causes was beyond reproach. He was an implacable opponent the practice of drafting young men into the military, which he believed was nothing less than a form of slavery. He devoted more time to campaigning on that issue than other and considered his role in bringing it to an end to be his greatest achievement. He is also one of the few prominent public figures to break the greatest public policy taboo of all and call for an end to the prohibition of drugs. Many self proclaimed ‘radical’ politicians have proved unwilling to take such a controversial stance and it is to Friedman’s credit that he was willing to be so honest about such an inflammatory subject.

Nor as is often supposed was he unconcerned with the plight of the poor. As the child of a poor immigrant family he was all too aware of the grim reality of a life for the ‘have nots’. But far from making him into a socialist, this experience made Friedman an even more fervent supporter of capitalism. He contrasted the mass affluence enjoyed by most people in the West with the grinding poverty that most Soviet citizens endured. Joseph Schrumpter’s view that ‘The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls’ was one that Friedman would undoubtedly have shared.

One of the least considered but most influential parts of Friedman’s writing, were his forays into social policy. He gave considerable thought to trying to find ways to help the poor without disempowering them. His prescriptions have been followed by a wide and often surprising range of governments. His idea of using the tax system to pay benefits was adopted first by Clinton’s Democrats and then by Gordon Brown in the form of tax credits. These credits have boosted the incomes of millions of poor families and helped thousands to get into work. Friedman’s plan to give poor parents vouchers with which to buy schooling for their children was to see its most faithful adoption not as you might expect in the US, Hong Kong or Chile but in social democrat Sweden. This scheme has gone a long way towards making the Swedes one of the best educated nations on earth.

Probably the cruelest myth about Friedman is that he was a supporter of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal Chilean junta. The repression that the regime engaged in was anathema to Friedman and he said so repeatedly. True, he did provide advice on economic policy to the Chilean and delivered a series of lectures n Chile while Pinochet was still in power. But he had given the same lectures and offered the same advice to the Chinese government. I doubt anyone would claim that this made Friedman a communist.

Friedman can be seen at his best in the enormously influential TV series, Free to Choose:

A fuller account of his life is provided by Samuel Brittain:

Friedman was a great economist, a great thinker and a great liberal and his work deserves attention from the left as well as the right.

No comments: