Monday, December 11, 2006

Congress Honors Friedman

It was little noted -- except as a passing snigger in a story syndicated by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- but the U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a resolution honoring the life and work of Milton Friedman, who died last month at the age of 94.

Introduced by Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Florida), the resolution had 55 cosponsors and passed on a voice vote on December 6. As a non-binding resolution, it was not conveyed to the Senate and will not require the President's signature.

One of the cosponsors, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, said in a news release from his congressional office:

“Millions all over the world have benefited from this dedicated man’s work. I am pleased to introduce this bill with my colleague, Cliff Stearns of Florida, honoring a noble life,” said Garrett. “I will continue to work to further the effort he began: expanding people’s liberty and improving their opportunities to live out their dreams for a better life.”
The resolution, designated H. Res. 1089, states in part:
Whereas Doctor Milton Friedman is widely regarded as the leader of the Chicago School of economics, and the developer of the theory of monetarism that stresses the central importance of the quantity of money as an instrument of government policy and as a determinant of business cycles and inflation;

Whereas Doctor Friedman's writings and ideas have influenced Presidents, other world leaders, entrepreneurs, and students of economics, and he gave himself generously to public service as an economic adviser to Senator Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidency in 1964, Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968, the Nixon Administration, Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, and the Reagan Administration as a member of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board;

Whereas Doctor Friedman is a 1976 Nobel Laureate economist and received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1951 honoring the top economists under the age of forty, the Grand Cordon of the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese government in 1986, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988, the National Medal of Science in 1988, and honorary degrees from universities in the United States, Japan, Israel, and Guatemala;

Whereas Doctor Friedman's ideas were the model for the free market reforms undertaken in eastern European countries as they emerged from communist domination in the early 1990s, helping extend the blessings of prosperity to millions who had long been denied them;

Whereas Doctor Friedman was a prolific producer of both scholarly and popular articles, essays, books, and broadcast media, including the books Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose, tri-weekly columns for Newsweek, commentaries in the Wall Street Journal, and two multi-part Public Broadcasting Service television series;

Whereas Doctor Friedman was one of the world's foremost champions of liberty, not just in economics but in all respects;

Whereas Doctor Friedman will be remembered both as one of the most influential economists in history and as one of the twentieth century's greatest heroes of freedom...
It concludes:
Resolved, That the House of Representatives, on the occasion of the death of Doctor Milton Friedman--

(1) mourns Doctor Friedman's passing and expresses its deepest condolences to his family, including his widow Rose Friedman, who is herself an accomplished economist and was instrumental in co-authoring some of his major works; and

(2) honors Doctor Friedman's lifetime of achievements and recognizes his outstanding contributions to freedom, the study of economics, the United States of America, and the world.
One must only hope that the Members of Congress who voted for this resolution actually understand what Milton Friedman said and what principles he propounded. (At least three of the H. Res. 1089's cosponsors -- Jeff Flake, Ron Paul, and Dana Rohrabacher -- surely do understand.)

Looking at this resolution somehow brought to mind an essay written by former Vice President Dan Quayle when he was in his first term as a member of the House of Representatives. It appears in a slim volume published in 1979 by Hillsdale College as Volume 6 of The Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series, entitled Champions of Freedom. (That volume seems to be out of print, but Volume 33 in the series, published in January 2006, is available at As a historical note, the other contributors to that volume were former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, former CIA director George Bush, and economists Benjamin Rogge and Alan Reynolds.

In his own essay, "Von Mises Looks at Congress," Quayle quoted the distinguished Austrian economist as saying:
As Professor von Mises proclaimed, "The idea that political freedom can be preserved in the absence of economic freedom, and vice versa, is an illusion. Political freedom is a corollary of economic freedom. It is no accident that the age of capitalism became also the age of government by the people. If individuals are not free to buy and sell on the market, they turn into virtual slaves dependent on the good graces of the omnipotent government, whatever the wording of the Constitution may be" (p. 4).
A few pages later, Quayle offers some observations in his own words. Keep in mind he was writing in the dark days of stagflation and the Carter administration; Ronald Reagan's election was still more a year in the future. Then-Congressman Quayle noted at the time:
We must reassert the capitalist system. We have drifted -- and what we have now is not capitalism, but a strange perversion in which the government can and does step in and dictate the rules of the game. Business must always obey. Under these circumstances, business is never free to compete. It must take into account during every business transaction the unknown factor of government interference and regulation. Business cannot plan for the future when a supply of capital can be so threatened by restrictive tax law changes, or when the profits needed to survive can be curtailed at any time by wage and price controls (p. 9).
If anyone wants to see how things have not changed much in the nearly three decades since Quayle was writing, take a look at this front page story from Sunday's Washington Post, which demonstrates how powerful business interests can persuade Congress to punish competitors through regulation, subsidies, and coercion: "Dairy Industry Crushed Innovator Who Bested Price-Control System." (That this sad episode occurred during the Republicans' control of Congress provides little hope or consolation for the future under the Democrats -- or the distant future under the Republicans again.)

Anyway, Quayle went on to say:
We do not have an easy road to travel. Von Mises understood what we must now understand if our economy is to make the changes necessary for its survival. Economic freedom is not just the ability of businesses to operate at will -- it is the absolute freedom of the individual to make decisions for himself regarding the conduct of his own life. It is the freedom to own property, to enter into business transactions, to grow and to prosper. We must learn again -- and the whole world with us -- that economic freedom is the indispensable prerequisite for individual political freedom. You cannot have one without the other (pp. 9-10).
Milton Friedman couldn't have said it better himself.

I have always maintained that Vice President Dan Quayle was severely underestimated. He was the true champion of freedom (to coin a phrase) in the Bush 41 administration, standing up for classical liberal principles when others around the Cabinet table failed to do so. He was (and is) also highly intelligent. Unfortunately, his treatment by the press and by late-night comics deep-sixed any future he might have had in political leadership. Our country is poorer for that.

Now a lot has changed in the 27-plus years since Quayle lectured in memory of Ludwig von Mises. The Soviet Empire collapsed and countries like Estonia are among the freest in the world. China -- Red China, that is -- is opening up its banking industry to foreign investors. The United States and Vietnam have regularized trade relations. Fidel Castro is on his deathbed (Santa, there's one thing you can do for Cuban boys and girls this Christmas...)

And, in the United States, we still live with the legacy of the Reagan years. Regulation has been (somewhat) reduced. Tax rates are (somewhat) lower. Productivity and employment are at record high rates. The cost of living is lower than ever, the middle class has expanded, and Americans enjoy more luxury products at lower prices than at any time in history. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent. The lessons taught by Friedman, von Mises, and even Quayle still need to be heard and heeded.

Will members of the 110th Congress follow the advice of Dan Quayle during the 96th Congress?


Steve Foerster said...

Wouldn't the best honor for Milton Friedman have been for members of Congress to pointedly honor him only on a personal basis rather than through a government resolution?

Rick Sincere said...

That same sense of irony struck me, as well. I tend to agree.

Steve Foerster said...

I suppose it's not surprising, though. These are the same "conservatives" who responded to Al Gore's claim of inventing the Internet simply by saying he didn't, totally missing the opportunity to point out that government doesn't create anything, but only inefficiently appropriates.