Milton Friedman, RIP

It’s turning into a bad few weeks for icons of the free-market cause. First Ralph Harris dies and now Milton Friedman, at the age of 94. I was lucky enough to meet Harris once, but though I never came face-to-face with Friedman he had an enormous influence on my life.

This influence started by the lucky misfortune of the hardback version of his book Free to Choose not selling as well as his publishers may have hoped. And so it ended up in a remainders bookstore in Swanston St, where I found it in the months before I was about to start studying economics at school. I’d never heard of him, but it said on the cover (I have it next to me as I write) ‘Nobel Prize Winner for Economics 1976’. My teenage brain leapt to the conclusion that this man would help me do better in my economics subject.

That assessment was wrong. Free-market economics hadn’t made it to the Victorian school system in 1982. But I found its clear explanation of how markets worked fascinating and enlightening. I had to know more about this subject, and tracked down other books by Friedman, then Hayek, then (I admit it, briefly) Rand and others. The following year I saw a newspaper article about a book with a title very similar to Friedman’s, Free to Shop. In my enthusiasm for free markets, shop trading hours had become a bit of a cause. The Victorian government was persecuting Caulfield hardware store owner Frank Penhalluriack for the appalling crime of opening his shop on Sundays. He eventually went to jail for it. Free to Shop , which set out the case for deregulating trading hours, was published by an organisation I wasn’t yet aware of, The Centre for Independent Studies, but I sent off for it – and so my long association with the CIS began.

In American libertarian circles, Friedman was sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle Milton’. While few people would classify themselves as ‘Friedmanites’, for many people he played the role he had in my life – a wise, avuncular figure guiding us into a much bigger set of ideas and influences. He could do this because his prose and his explanations were so clear. Like many good writers, he can be read on two levels. Re-reading him later in life I could see implicit references to and debates with other thinkers in what he was saying. But these don’t clutter the text and so he made perfect sense to a sixteen year old. As recent interviews suggest, he was still lucid into his nineties. I’ve no doubt that his clarity will survive him and influence people born long after he died.

Milton Friedman, RIP.

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