Happy 100th birthday, Milton Friedman!


Today would’ve been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday (he died in 2006). Donald J. Boudreaux pens a note of appreciation:

In a scene from the opening episode of his successful 10-part 1980 PBS series “Free to Choose,” Friedman held in his hand an ordinary pencil. Looking into the camera, and speaking without a script, he explained that a pencil – so seemingly simple – requires for its production the knowledge and labors of millions of people from around the world.

Some workers cut down the trees; other workers make the chainsaws used to cut down the trees; yet other workers make the steel used to manufacture the chainsaws; and yet other workers specialize in mining the iron ore used to make the steel. Still other workers mine the graphite to make the “lead” for the pencil, while many others work in factories to make the yellow paint that commonly adorns pencils, while still other workers perform the many tasks required to produce the rubber for each pencil’s eraser.

Just to list the number of different, highly specialized jobs that must be performed to produce a commonplace pencil would take volumes. Few of these workers know each other, and none of them knows how to do any more than one or two of the countless jobs that must be done if we are to be well-supplied with pencils.

Friedman explained how free-market prices, along with the lure of profit and the fear of loss, guide entrepreneurs, firms, and workers from across the globe to produce just the right amounts of wood, graphite, paint, erasers, and the many other parts of pencils.

No government commissars are involved. There’s no central plan for the production of pencils. Yet we have high-quality pencils in abundance and for sale at low prices. What’s true for pencils, of course, is true also for more complex items such as automobiles, electric lighting, MRI machines, and on and on – that is, for nearly every good commonly found in modern industrial society.

No one equaled Friedman’s skill at explaining how free markets succeed at coordinating the activities of legions of individuals to produce the goods and services that we today take for granted. Likewise, no one equaled his skill at explaining how government regulators are typically oblivious to the complexity of the coordination achieved by markets. Being oblivious, regulators’ interventions too often obstruct this market coordination.

Note that Friedman would heartily agree with President Obama that no one prospers in today’s economy exclusively through his or her own individual efforts. Where Friedman would disagree – and disagree strongly – is with Obama’s suggestion that the main source of help that each of us gets from others is government. While government might supply some necessary pieces, such as highways and law courts, the vast bulk of what society supplies for each person’s sustenance and success comes not from government but from the ongoing private efforts of millions of individuals acting in free markets.

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