Friedman’s Radicalism Grew with Age
1912 was the year the Titanic sank, Woodrow Wilson was elected, and Fenway Park opened. Well, at least we can be glad that one of those three things came to pass that year! But something especially significant for economics and the cause of freedom also occurred in 1912: Milton Friedman was born. And fifty years later Friedman wrote one of the classics of classical liberalism, Capitalism and Freedom.[i]
This year, 2012, is thus the 100th anniversary of Friedman’s birth and the 50th anniversary of his broadside against the reigning political orthodoxies of his era. Of course, Capitalism and Freedom did more than merely attack the philosophy of government and the policies behind President John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country.”[ii] It also developed a positive case for a “liberal” and free-market approach to politics and economics appropriate for a society of free men and women.[iii]
Given these dual anniversaries, it is worth reflecting on Friedman and his seminal text. In particular, I want to focus on the nature of Friedman’s political and economic thought. I will also discuss briefly how his views changed over time, especially after the publication of Capitalism and Freedom in 1962. It is my contention that the approach outlined by Friedman in this book was indeed a radical one (for good or for bad depending on your view) despite his frequently pragmatic approach to “real world” politics. Moreover, Friedman became even more radical over the course of his life – belying the conventional wisdom that people get more conservative as they grow older.