Monday, July 30, 2012

Milton Friedman, a centennial appreciation

by Donald J. Boudreaux


July 30, 2012

At the height of the Vietnam War, U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland testified before the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force. The 15 members of that commission were charged with exploring the feasibility of ending the military draft.

Staunchly opposed to an all-volunteer military, which must pay its soldiers market wages, Gen. Westmoreland proclaimed that he did not want to command "an army of mercenaries." One of the commission members immediately shot back with a question: "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" That penetrating query was posed by Milton Friedman, a diminutive (he stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall) giant among 20th-century scholars. Were he still alive - he died in 2006 - Friedman would celebrate his 100th birthday on July 31.

Bald and bespectacled, Friedman looked every part the University of Chicago economics professor that he was. During his long tenure at that celebrated institution, he produced a stream of cutting-edge research on consumer behavior, on the role of money, and on the history of U.S. and British monetary policy. The impressive quantity, quality, and importance of this research without doubt places Friedman among the top two or three economists of the past century.

Friedman, indeed, is one of the few scholars whose receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics - which he received in 1976 - did at least as much to bestow prestige on that award as that award did to bestow prestige on him. (The first Nobel Prize in Economics wasn't awarded until 1969.) Friedman's stupendous scholarly achievements alone justify commemoration of the centenary of his birth.