Of all of Dr. Milton Friedman’s works, my favorite is not his efforts in economic theory, for which he won his Nobel Prize in Economics, nor any of the many other scholarly tomes he produced. It’s not even “Free To Choose”, his successful TV series and book that proved that economics could be a hit with American popular culture. My favorite work is, in fact, an hour-long recording of appearance on the Phil Donahue Show in 1979, available to the world on YouTube.
In this interview, Milton Friedman takes the opportunity to solidly present his case for a smaller government that spends less, regulates less, and interferes in the private sector less. He responds to the entire litany of liberal shibboleths posed by Phil Donahue and members of the audience, like greedy corporations, income inequality, and anarchy brought by unrestricted human activity. He answers each in turn in the same good-natured, grandfatherly manner, challenging the viewer to think it through for themselves.
The highlight of the show is his counter argument to the proposition that capitalism is based on greed. Is not greed just another word for self-interest, he asks? And is there any citizen, any politician, any country that does not operate on a basis of its own self interest? He correctly cites that history has shown that the only occasions that the common people have risen up from grinding poverty have been when the productivity and industry of individuals have been unleashed by allowing them to participate in the free enterprise capitalism.
At times Dr. Friedman appears eerily prescient. When Milton asserts that that the size of a company is neither inherently good or bad, Phil asks him if he would object to Sears buying out K-Mart. Dr. Friedman replies laughingly that the way things are going, it is more likely that K-mart will purchase Sears. They did, in 2004. As Dr. Friedman points out the waste and inefficiency of government regulations that keeps the cost of oil and interstate trucking high, you realize that in just a couple years both of those industries would be deregulated, much to the benefit of the US economy. The clear, free-market principles he gives for his opposition to the bail-out of Chrysler are more applicable and carry even more weight when transported to the repeat in 2009, though sadly they were not followed in either event.
Phil Donahue, to his credit, is polite and respectful throughout the interview. He never attempts to talk over Dr. Friedman, never cuts him off or tries to filibuster. It actually seems a bit strange and anachronistic, given the state of political dialogue we get from today’s talking heads on TV. Despite the polar opposition of their views, the entire hour is more of a conversation and discussion among friends than a debate. Although you realize that Phil will never abandon his liberal beliefs, you can’t help but sense, as Dr. Freidman swats down every argument with ease, a look of distress and doubt growing in Phil’s eyes. Phil Donahue’s audience, a mostly female group not generally assumed to be comprised of conservatives, applaud generously each time Dr. Friedman makes a particularly good point. Therein lies what I believe is his greatest talent: the ability to communicate complicated economic principles in a non-technical manner clearly understandable by the layman, and to persuade the general public of the superiority of policies of limited government, free market capitalism and individual freedom.