Milton and Rose Friedman:
Capitalism's Greatest Living Champions
Eight ways you can learn from their success
by Jim Powell, July 1992
More than anyone else, Milton and Rose Friedman took a compelling case for free markets to the world. Ayn Rand has sold more books, but the Friedmans reached millions who probably never read a good book about freedom--through countless lectures, TV appearances and, of course, their Free to Choose TV series.
This son of a Ruthenian clothing merchant and daughter of a Polish door-to-door clothing salesman have influenced economists, political leaders and lay people alike. Smuggled versions of their work helped keep the torch of liberty burning in brutal police states.
Even those among us who might disagree with some of their ideas must surely admire how they were able to go far beyond the ranks of the converted and reach a global audience. This is something we all dream of doing. More of us must succeed if we're to have any chance of prevailing.
You can do better by noting how the Friedmans did what they did. I've identified 8 elements of their success:
1. Emphasize common ground.
For years, before launching into any debate, the Friedmans would note that for all practical purposes everyone wants to expand human freedom, reduce unemployment, alleviate poverty and so on. "The major differences among people," Milton has explained, "are not differences about objectives but about how to achieve them, about methods."
2. Master a key policy issue.
Life isn't long enough to be esoteric. Milton decided to become an expert on money because it has such a dynamic impact on an economy. He developed original research on the Great Depression, long thought to be the greatest example of a market failure. Few of us will become experts like the Friedmans, but we can do much good by keeping ourselves informed and able to handle adversaries on at least a few key policies.
3. Concentrate on your most important point.
It's always tempting to discuss as many points as you can, but especially when you're giving a talk or doing a broadcast interview, where your audience can't follow a text, such a scattershot approach is sure to result in low audience recall. During the last several decades, the Friedmans focused on this most important point: freedom is the supreme value which can be applied an infinite number of ways.
4. Develop a simple, positive program.
That's how the Fabians triumphed in England. Lenin's famous program was "Peace, Land, Bread". In Capitalism and Freedom (1961), the Friedmans developed a specific, radical program with more than a dozen major objectives which have inspired libertarians everywhere. It's generally easier to seize the initiative with a specific program than to be against programs promoted by others.
5. Use popular techniques of presentation.
While some turgid writers like Marx and Keynes achieved great influence, the odds still are that being turgid will get you nowhere. Few readers have much patience for writers who make things difficult. The Friedmans reached a world-wide audience, in part, because of their willingness to master popular writing techniques. Milton adapted to the severe time constraints of television. I well remember his advice to me years ago: always open a talk with a joke.
Unfortunately, from Lord Acton to the present day, there have been many defenders of liberty who had extraordinary knowledge and eloquence, yet took it all to the grave. How much better the world might be if such gifted individuals defined some topic that's do-able, set a meaningful deadline, enlisted collaborators if necessary and got their work out. Further refine your ideas later, as the Friedmans refined many of their ideas in their Free to Choose book, but get your work out where it can do some good here and now.
7. Muster your courage.
For his doctoral thesis, Milton exposed laws that restricted entry into the medical profession and enabled doctors to earn more money than they could in an open market--and adversaries delayed awarding his degree for five years. In 1946, he co-authored Roofs or Ceilings, an attack on rent control; many economists belittled him as a propagandist. During the 1950s, Milton defied Keynesian orthodoxy and insisted that the Federal Reserve, not free market capitalism, was primarily responsible for the Great Depression. He took on the powerful public school lobby by making his pioneering case for tuition vouchers. Amidst the Vietnam War, he broke with conservatives by advocating an immediate end to military conscription. He argued for free foreign exchange markets when most people believed in the Bretton Woods fixed-rate system. He was an intellectual leader of California's Proposition 13 tax rebellion that jolted the nation. During the 1980s, many people called for an all-out war against narcotics, but Milton affirmed his courageous radicalism by declaring that narcotics should be legalized. Most recently, he has taken on the health care establishment again, showing why the current crisis could be resolved by repealing laws.
8. Be nice.
The most basic lesson of salesmanship is that customers buy from those whom they like. Your ideas might be correct, and your research might be solid, but if you come across as a disagreeable sourpuss, an audience will probably favor your nicer opponent. A major asset of the Friedmans is that they are such nice, decent, outgoing people who don't engage in factional fighting or personal attacks. As Milton says engagingly of his opponents: "I object not to the softness of their hearts but the softness of their heads."
Of course, the best way to learn from the Friedmans is to review their work yourself, especially the new 5-video Free to Choose series where you can see all their marvelous techniques in action. There is no better way to help put across a free market story more successfully.
We're delighted to salute the Friedmans on their 80th birthday. We hope they'll be with us for many more years to share their insights, enjoy their family and their richly-deserved rewards.
Jim Powell served as Laissez Faire Books editor from 1992 to 2004. He is the author of FDR's Follly, Triumph of Liberty, and an upcoming book about Woodrow Wilson.