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Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) was an American Nobel Laureate economist and public intellectual. He made major contributions to the fields of economics and statistics. In 1976, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.[1] He was an advocate of economic freedom.

also see: Nobel Prize

According to The Economist, Friedman "was the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it".[2] Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan stated, "There are very few people over the generations who have ideas that are sufficiently original to materially alter the direction of civilization. Milton is one of those very few people."[3]

In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman advocated minimizing the role of government in a free market as a means of creating political and social freedom. In his 1980 television series Free to Choose, Friedman explained his view of how free markets work, emphasizing his conviction that free markets have been shown to solve social and political problems that other systems have failed to address adequately. His books and columns for Newsweek were widely read and even circulated underground behind the Iron Curtain.[4]

Earning a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1946, Friedman originally was a Keynesian supporter of the New Deal and advocate of high taxes. He moved away from the idea of central control in the 1950s, along with his close friend George Stigler. Friedman's political philosophy, which he considered classically liberal and consequentialist libertarian, stressed the advantages of the marketplace and the disadvantages of government intervention, strongly influencing the outlook of American conservatives and libertarians. He adamantly argued that if capitalism, or economic freedom, is introduced into countries governed by totalitarian regimes, political freedom would tend to result. He lived to see some of his laissez-faire ideas embraced by the mainstream,[5] especially during the 1980s, a watershed decade for the acceptance of Friedman's ideas in many countries. His views of monetary policy, taxation, privatization and deregulation informed the policy of governments around the globe, especially the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the U.S., Brian Mulroney in Canada, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Early life

Friedman was born on July 31, 1912, in Brooklyn, New York, to a working family of Jewish immigrants from Beregszász in Hungary (now Berehove, part of Ukraine).

He was the first son and youngest child of Sára Eszter Landau and Jenő Saul Friedman,[6] both of whom worked as dry goods merchants. Shortly after Milton's birth, the family relocated to Rahway, New Jersey. A gifted student, Friedman graduated from Rahway High School in 1928, shortly before his 16th birthday.[7]

Friedman was awarded a competitive scholarship to Rutgers University in New Jersey, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1932.[8] He specialized in Mathematics and initially intended to become an actuary but found the exams cumbersome and quit. During his time at Rutgers, Friedman fell under the influence of two economics professors, Arthur F. Burns and Homer Jones. At the height of the Great Depression, they convinced him that the study of Economics could help to solve the ongoing economic difficulties, and he ended up graduating with the equivalent of a double major in Mathematics and Economics.

Upon his graduation from Rutgers, Friedman turned down an offer to study applied mathematics at Brown University, instead accepting a scholarship to study Economics at the University of Chicago (M.A., 1933). During this year in Chicago, Friedman's intellectual development was strongly influenced by Jacob Viner, Frank Knight, and Henry Simons. It was also during this time at Chicago that Friedman met his future wife, Rose Director (sister of prominent law professor Aaron Director). After completing his master's degree, Friedman spent the next academic year (1933–34) on a postgraduate fellowship at Columbia University, where he studied statistics with renowned statistician and economist Harold Hotelling. He was back in Chicago for 1934–35, spending the year working as a research assistant for Henry Schultz, who was then working on his Theory and Measurement of Demand. During this year, Friedman formed what would prove to be lifelong friendships with George Stigler and Wilson Allen Wallis.

Public service

Friedman was initially unable to find academic employment, so in 1935, he followed his friend W. Allen Wallis to Washington, D.C., where Roosevelt's New Deal was "a lifesaver" for many young economists.[9] At this stage, Friedman said that he and his wife "regarded the job-creation programs such as the WPA, CCC, and PWA appropriate responses to the critical situation", but not "the price- and wage-fixing measures of the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration".[10] Foreshadowing his later ideas, he saw price controls as interfering with an essential signaling mechanism to help resources go where they are most valued. Indeed, Friedman later concluded that all government intervention associated with the New Deal was "the wrong cure for the wrong disease", arguing that the money supply should simply have been expanded, instead of contracted.[11] In Monetary History of the United States, he argues that the Great Depression was caused by monetary contraction, which was the consequence of poor policymaking by the Federal reserve and the continuous crises in the banking system.[12]

In 1935, he began work at the National Resources Committee, which was then working on a large consumer budget survey. Ideas from this project later became a part of his Theory of the Consumption Function. Friedman moved to the National Bureau of Economic Research in fall 1937 to assist Simon Kuznets in his work on professional income. This work led to their jointly authored Incomes from Independent Professional Practice, which introduced the concepts of permanent and transitory income, a major component of the Permanent Income Hypothesis that Friedman worked out in greater detail in the 1950s. The book hypothesizes that professional licensing artificially restricts the supply of services and raises prices.

In 1940, Friedman was appointed an assistant professor teaching Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but encountered antisemitism in the Economics department and decided to return to government service.[13][14] Friedman spent 1941–43 working on wartime tax policy for the Federal Government, as an advisor to senior officials of the United States Department of the Treasury. As a Treasury spokesman in 1942 he advocated a Keynesian policy of taxation, and during this time he helped to invent the payroll withholding tax system.[15]

In his autobiography, he comments on "how thoroughly Keynesian I was then".[16] As Friedman grew older he reversed himself; in 2006 he observed, "You know, it's a mystery as to why people think Roosevelt's policies pulled us out of the Depression. The problem was that you had unemployed machines and unemployed people. How do you get them together by forming industrial cartels and keeping prices and wages up?"[17]

Academic career

Early years

In 1943, Friedman joined the Division of War Research at Columbia University (headed by Wilson Allen Wallis and Harold Hotelling), where he spent the rest of the war years working as a mathematical statistician, focusing on problems of weapons design, military tactics, and metallurgical experiments. Then in 1945, Friedman submitted Incomes from Independent Professional Practice (co-authored with Kuznets and completed in 1940) to Columbia as his doctoral dissertation. The university awarded him a Ph.D. in 1946. Friedman spent the 1945–46 academic year teaching at the University of Minnesota (where his friend George Stigler was employed).

University of Chicago

In 1946, Friedman accepted an offer to teach economic theory at the University of Chicago (a position opened by Jacob Viner's departure to Princeton University). Friedman would stay at the University of Chicago for the next 30 years. There he helped build a close-knit intellectual community that produced a number of Nobel Prize winners, known collectively as the Chicago School of Economics.

At the same time he moved to the University of Chicago, Arthur Burns, who was then the head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, asked Friedman to rejoin the Bureau's staff. He accepted the invitation, and assumed responsibility for the Bureau's inquiry into the role of money in the business cycle. As a result, he founded the "Workshop in Money and Banking" (the "Chicago Workshop"), which led a revival in monetary studies. During the latter half of the 1940s, Friedman began a collaboration with Anna Schwartz, an economic historian at the Bureau, which would ultimately result in the 1963 publication of a book co-authored by Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960.

Friedman spent the 1954–55 academic year as a Visiting Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. At the time, the Cambridge economics faculty was deeply divided into a Keynesian majority (including Joan Robinson and Richard Kahn) and a virulently anti-Keynesian minority (headed by Dennis Robertson). Friedman speculates that he was invited to the fellowship because his extreme laissez-faire views were unacceptable to both of the Cambridge factions, a fact that highlights how far out of the mainstream Friedman was in the 1950s.

Nobel memorial prize and retirement

In 1976, Friedman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences "for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy".[1] In 1977, at age 65, Friedman retired from the University of Chicago after teaching there for 30 years. He and his wife moved to San Francisco. From 1977 on, he was affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. During the same year, Friedman was approached by the Palmer R. Chitester Fund[18] and asked to create a television program presenting his economic and social philosophy. The Friedmans worked on this project for the next three years, and in 1980, the ten-part series, entitled Free to Choose, aired on PBS. The companion book to the series (co-authored by Milton and his wife, Rose Friedman), also entitled Free to Choose, was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1980 and has since been translated into 14 foreign languages.

Friedman served as an unofficial adviser to Ronald Reagan during his 1980 presidential campaign, and then served on the President's Economic Policy Advisory Board for the rest of the Reagan Administration. In 1988, he received the National Medal of Science and Reagan honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Milton Friedman is today known as one of the most influential economists of the 20th century.[19][20] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Friedman continued to write op-eds and appear in the media. He made several trips to Eastern Europe and to China.

In Friedman's last email interview in 2006, he said that the greatest threat to the world's economy is "Islamofascism, with terrorism as its weapon".[21] Milton Friedman died at the age of 94 in San Francisco on November 16, 2006.[22][23] Friedman's son is the philosopher and economist David D. Friedman.

Scholarly contributions


Friedman was best known for reviving interest in the money supply as a determinant of the nominal value of output, that is, the quantity theory of money. Monetarism is the set of views associated with modern quantity theory. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th-century School of Salamanca or even further but Friedman's contribution is largely responsible for its modern formulation. He co-authored, with Anna Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States (1963), which sought to examine the role of the money supply and economic activity in U.S. history. A striking conclusion of their research was one regarding the role of money supply fluctuations as contributing to economic fluctuations. Several regression studies with David Meiselman in the 1960s suggested the primacy of the money supply over investment and government spending in determining consumption and output. These challenged a prevailing but largely untested view on their relative importance. Friedman's empirical research and some theory supported the conclusion that the short-run effect of a change in the money supply was primarily on output but that the longer-run effect was primarily on the price level.

Friedman was the leading proponent of the monetarist school of economic thought. He maintained that there is a close and stable link between inflation and the money supply, mainly that the phenomenon of inflation is to be regulated by controlling the amount of money poured into the national economy by the Federal Reserve Bank. Friedman's arguments were designed to counter popular claims that inflation at the time was the result of increases in the oil price, or increases in wages: as he wrote,

Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

—Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 (1963)
Friedman rejected the use of fiscal policy as a tool of demand management; and he held that the government's role in the guidance of the economy should be severely restricted. Friedman wrote extensively on the Great Depression, which he called the Great Contraction, arguing that it had been caused by an ordinary financial shock whose duration and seriousness were greatly increased by the subsequent contraction of the money supply caused by the misguided policies of the directors of the Federal Reserve.

The Fed was largely responsible for converting what might have been a garden-variety recession, although perhaps a fairly severe one, into a major catastrophe. Instead of using its powers to offset the depression, it presided over a decline in the quantity of money by one-third from 1929 to 1933 ... Far from the depression being a failure of the free-enterprise system, it was a tragic failure of government.

—Milton Friedman, Two Lucky People, 233

Friedman also argued for the cessation of government intervention in currency markets, thereby spawning an enormous literature on the subject, as well as promoting the practice of freely floating exchange rates. Friedman's macroeconomic theories were soon displaced. His close friend George Stigler explained, "As is customary in science, he did not win a full victory, in part because research was directed along different lines by the theory of rational expectations, a newer approach developed by Robert Lucas, also at the University of Chicago."[24]

Friedman was also known for his work on the consumption function, the permanent income hypothesis (1957), which Friedman himself referred to as his best scientific work.[25] This work contended that rational consumers would spend a proportional amount of what they perceived to be their permanent income. Windfall gains would mostly be saved. Tax reductions likewise, as rational consumers would predict that taxes would have to rise later to balance public finances. Other important contributions include his critique of the Phillips curve and the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (1968). This critique associated his name, together with that of Edmumd Phelps, with the insight that a government that brings about higher inflation cannot permanently reduce unemployment by doing so. Unemployment may be temporarily lower, if the inflation is a surprise, but in the long run unemployment will be determined by the frictions and imperfections in the labour market.

Friedman's essay "The Methodology of Positive Economics" (1953) set the epistemological course for his own subsequent research and to a degree that of the Chicago School of Economics. There he argued that economics as science should be free of value judgments for it to be objective. Moreover, a useful economic theory should be judged not by its descriptive realism (hair color, etc.) but by its simplicity and fruitfulness as an engine of prediction.


Although less popularly known for these advances, Friedman was also widely agreed to be a brilliant statistician. One of his most famous contributions to statistics is sequential sampling. "Friedman did statistical work at the Division of War Research at Columbia. He and his colleagues came up with a sampling technique, known as sequential sampling, which became, in the words of The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 'the standard analysis of quality control inspection.' The dictionary adds: 'Like many of Friedman’s contributions, in retrospect it seems remarkably simple and obvious to apply basic economic ideas to quality control; that however is a measure of his genius.'"[26]

Other work

"He was also a key member of the team that developed a new proximity fuse for anti-aircraft projectiles, preventing bombs from going off unless they are near the object they are meant to destroy"[26] during the second world war.

Public policy positions

Friedman was in favor of abolishing the Federal Reserve System and replacing it with a mechanical system in nature that would keep the quantity of money going up at a steady rate, issued directly by the government and cutting back on fractional reserve banking powers for the banks. Friedman also supported libertarian policies such as decriminalization of drugs and prostitution. During the Nixon administration he headed the committee to explore a move towards a paid/volunteer armed force. He would later state that his role in eliminating the draft was his proudest accomplishment.[27] Friedman did, however, believe a nation could compel military training as a reserve in case of war time.[28] He served as a member of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board in 1981. In 1988, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. He said that he was a libertarian philosophically, but a member of the U.S. Republican Party for the sake of "expediency" ("I am a libertarian with a small 'l' and a Republican with a capital 'R.' And I am a Republican with a capital 'R' on grounds of expediency, not on principle.") But, he said, "I think the term classical liberal is also equally applicable. I don't really care very much what I'm called. I'm much more interested in having people thinking about the ideas, rather than the person."[29]

Friedman was supportive of the state provision of some public goods that the market is not seen as being able to provide. However, he saw the scope of such goods as being minimal, and argued that many of the services performed by government could be performed better by the private sector. Above all, if some public goods are provided by the state, he believed that they should not be a legal monopoly where private competition is prohibited. For, example, in response to the United States Post Office's legal monopoly on mail, he said

There is no way to justify our present public monopoly of the post office. It may be argued that the carrying of mail is a technical monopoly and that a government monopoly is the least of evils. Along these lines, one could perhaps justify a government post office, but not the present law, which makes it illegal for anybody else to carry the mail. If the delivery of mail is a technical monopoly, no one else will be able to succeed in competition with the government. If it is not, there is no reason why the government should be engaged in it. The only way to find out is to leave other people free to enter.

—Milton Friedman, Friedman, Milton & Rose D. Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press, 1982, 29
Friedman made headlines by proposing a negative income tax to replace the existing welfare system and then opposing the bill to implement it because it merely supplemented the existing system rather than replace it.

In 2005, Friedman and more than 500 other economists called for discussions regarding the economic benefits of the legalization of marijuana.[30]

Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute and Friedman hosted a series of conferences from 1986 to 1994. The goal was to create a clear definition of Economic freedom and a method for measuring it. Eventually this resulted in the first report on worldwide economic freedom, Economic Freedom in the World. These annual report has since provided data for numerous peer-reviewed studies and has influenced policy in several nations.

Along with sixteen other distinguished economists he opposed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and filed an amicus brief in Eldred v. Ashcroft.[31]

Honors, recognition, and influence
Friedman allowed the Cato Institute to use his name for its Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2001. The award is given out biannually. The Friedman Prize went to the late British economist Peter Bauer in 2002, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto in 2004, Mart Laar, former Estonian Prime Minister in 2006 and a young Venezuelan student Yon Goicoechea in 2008.

His wife Rose, sister of Aaron Director, with whom he founded the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for School Choice, served in the international selection committee. Friedman's son, David D. Friedman, has carried on his tradition of arguing in favor of free markets, but to a further extreme, advocating anarcho-capitalism.

Hong Kong
Friedman once said "if you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong".[32] He believed the Hong Kong economy was the best example of a laissez-faire capitalism economy.

One month before his death, he wrote the article "Hong Kong Wrong - What would Cowperthwaite say?" in the Wall Street Journal, criticizing Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, for abandoning "positive noninterventionism".[33] Tsang later said he was merely changing the slogan to "big market, small government", where small government is defined as less than 20% of GDP. In a debate between Tsang and Alan Leong, rivals for the position of Chief Executive, Leong brought up the topic and accused Tsang of angering Friedman to death.

For more information on Milton Friedman's views on Chile, see Miracle of Chile.
In 1975, two years after the military coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende, the economy of Chile experienced a crisis. Friedman accepted the invitation of a private foundation to visit Chile and lecture on principles of economic freedom. Friedman also met with the military dictator, President Augusto Pinochet, during his visit, but he did not serve as a formal advisor to the Chilean government. Instead, Chilean graduates of The Chicago School of Economics and its new local chapters were appointed to key positions in the new government, which allowed them to advise the dictator on economic policies in accord with the School's economic doctrine.

At home, several critics attacked Friedman's association with Pinochet, who had violently deposed Allende, the elected socialist head of state.[34] He came under heavy criticism from exiled Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Orlando Letelier, who criticized Friedman's economic theories. In 1976, Letelier wrote:

It is curious that the man who wrote a book, Capitalism and Freedom, to drive home the argument that only classical economic liberalism can support political democracy can now so easily disentangle economics from politics when the economic theories he advocates coincide with an absolute restriction of every type of democratic freedom.

—Orlando Letelier, "The Chicago Boys In Chile", The Nation, 28 August 1976

Friedman encapsulated his philosophy in a lecture at La Universidad Católica de Chile, saying: "free markets would undermine political centralization and political control."[35]

According to his critics, Friedman did not criticize Pinochet's dictatorship at the time, nor the assassinations, illegal imprisonments, torture, or other atrocities that were well-known by then.[36] Later, in Free to Choose, he said the following: "Chile is not a politically free system and I do not condone the political system ... the conditions of the people in the past few years has been getting better and not worse. They would be still better to get rid of the junta and to be able to have a free democratic system."[37]

When he went to receive his Nobel prize in Stockholm, he was met by demonstrations. In an interview on the PBS program Commanding Heights in 2000, Friedman attributed these demonstrations by opponents he recognized from earlier occasions to communists seeking to discredit anyone with even the slightest connection to Pinochet — such as himself — adding that "there was no doubt that there was a concerted effort to tar and feather me".[38]

Friedman defended his role in Chile on the grounds that, in his opinion, the move towards open market policies not only improved the economic situation in Chile but also contributed to the softening of Pinochet's rule and to the eventual transition to a democratic government in 1990. That idea followed from Capitalism and Freedom, in which he declared that economic freedom is not only desirable in itself but is also a necessary condition for political freedom. He stressed that the lectures he gave in Chile were the same lectures he later gave in China and other socialist states.[39] In the 2000 PBS documentary The Commanding Heights, Friedman continued to claim that criticism over his role in Chile missed his main point that freer markets led to freer people, and that Chile's unfree economy had led to the military government. Friedman argued that the economic liberalization he advocated led to the end of military rule and a free Chile.[38]


Friedman visited Iceland in the autumn of 1984, met with prominent Icelanders and gave a lecture at the University of Iceland on the Tyranny of the Status Quo. He participated in a lively television debate on August 31, 1984 with leading socialist intellectuals, including President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.[40] When they complained that a fee was charged for attending his lecture at the University and that hitherto lectures by visiting scholars had been free-of-charge, Friedman replied that previous lectures had not been free-of-charge in a meaningful sense: Lectures always have related costs. What mattered was whether attendees covered those costs, or those who did not attend. Friedman thought that it was fairer that only those who attended, paid.

Friedman made a great impact on a group of young intellectuals in the Independence Party, including Davíđ Oddsson who became Prime Minister in 1991 and began a radical program of monetary and fiscal stabilization, privatization, tax rate reduction (e.g., lowering the corporate income tax rate from 45% to 18%), definition of exclusive use rights in fisheries, abolition of various government funds for aiding unprofitable enterprises and liberalization of currency transfers and capital markets. In 1975, Iceland had the 53rd freest economy in the world, while in 2004, it had the 9th freest economy, according to the Economic Freedom of the World index designed by Canada’s Fraser Institute. According to the index designed by the Heritage Foundation, Iceland as of 2008 has the 5th freest economy in the world. Davíđ Oddsson was Prime Minister for thirteen and a half years, to 2004. The present Prime Minister, Geir H. Haarde supports similar policies.[41]

Although Friedman never visited Estonia, his book Free to Choose exercised a great influence on that nation's then 32-year-old prime minister, Mart Laar, who has claimed that it was the only book on economics he had read before taking office. Laar's reforms are often credited with responsibility for transforming Estonia from an impoverished Soviet Republic to the "Baltic Tiger". A prime element of Laar's program was introduction of the flat tax. Laar won the 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, awarded by the Cato Institute.[42]

As a result of Laar's adherence to the principles in Free to Choose, Estonia now consistently ranks highly in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Economic Freedom Index.[43]

Friedman has attracted substantial criticism over his views, both from economic libertarians and those on the left.

Criticism from fellow economists
Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, while regarding him as a 'great economist and a great man', criticized him in this way:

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, there were many people saying that markets can never work. Friedman had the intellectual courage to say that markets can too work, and his showman's flair combined with his ability to marshal evidence made him the best spokesman for the virtues of free markets since Adam Smith. But he slipped all too easily into claiming both that markets always work and that only markets work. It's extremely hard to find cases in which Friedman acknowledged the possibility that markets could go wrong, or that government intervention could serve a useful purpose. [44]

Libertarian Criticisms

In 1971, Murray Rothbard wrote a lengthy article for The Individualist which heavily criticized several of Friedman's viewpoints as totalitarian and statist. In particular, Rothbard criticized Friedman's viewpoint that the micro- and macro-spheres are entirely separate with the government needing to take an active role in the macro-sphere as false and dangerous, the view that it is beneficial for the government to control currency to maintain constant price levels as bogus and harmful, and the viewpoint that nonpaying beneficiaries of positive externalities created by various services should be taxed to pay producers of that service as an absurd position that opens the door for the most ridiculous forms of totalitarianism. More generally, he criticizes Friedman's efforts to make the government more efficient as highly detrimental to individual liberty, and concludes that "And so, as we examine Milton Friedman’s credentials to be the leader of free-market economics, we arrive at the chilling conclusion that it is difficult to consider him a free-market economist at all."[45]

Film appearance

Milton Friedman appeared on the documentary film The Corporation to discuss his views on corporate externalities. He was also interviewed on The One Percent and played the Economist in the 1978 film Tältet.[46]

See also

Works of Milton Friedman
List of economists
List of notable Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients

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