The man who helped millions escape poverty

Written by Ila Patnaik | Updated: Nov 21 2006, 05:30am hrs
Milton Friedman died on November 16 at the age of 94. Few people have shaped our world like he did. When Friedman began his intellectual life, the prevailing consensus involved a powerful government that interfered in the lives of citizens and firms. On one hand, Nazi and communist ideas sought to infringe into the personal freedom of individuals.

In parallel, many economists were eager to infringe upon the economic freedom of individuals through capital controls, welfare programmes, and license-permit systems, and the like. Putting these two lines of attack together, the liberal dream was endangered. Friedman was perhaps the most important figure of the 20th century to have laid the intellectual foundations of modern liberal thought.

His most important book was Capitalism and Freedom, written in 1962, which has inspired an endless sequence of intellectuals ever since. This book underlined the connections between economic freedom and political freedom. Under socialism, where economic power is controlled by the State, it is all too easy to sink into one-party rule.

Friedman did not have a rosy belief that the free market was always perfect. But he was clear-headed enough to see that government interference in markets was worse, and that this interference came at the cost of not only economic efficiency, but also political freedom. Today, these ideas are commonplace. But in the early 20th century, it required remarkable independence of thought to be able to break with the mainstream.

As an example, Friedman was one of the first people to understand the blunders that India was making with the experiment in socialism. At a time when our economists did not understand how markets work, and were drunk with power, Friedman correctly understood that this was the path to perpetuating poverty (see for writings on India from 1955).

The most remarkable thing about Friedman's life was the sequence of ideas that came from him, which went from the absolutely heretical to the completely mainstream. He was the first to pin the blame for the Great Depression on bad monetary policy. This was radically different from conventional wisdom, which viewed the GreatDepression as being consistent with the Marxist prediction of ever-expanding crises in capitalism. The US Federal Reserve, obviously, did not like to be blamed for having made such huge mistakes. In 2002, Ben Bernanke said ( "I would like to say to Milton and Anna: regarding the Great Depression, you're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again..

Floating exchange rates. Education vouchers. Investment-based pension programmes. Currency futures trading. Monetary policy that stabilizes; monetary policy that is based on publicly stated rules. Redistribution by a negative income-tax. All these ideas were invented by Friedman. All of them were vehemently opposed by entrenched government bureacracies, but have now become the mainstream consensus.

In each of these issues, Friedman had the unique ability to not get intimidated by conventional wisdom and the bureacratic establishment. He knew how to think about issues from first principles, rigorously apply economic reasoning, and be unafraid about where the reasoning took him even if it involved making many powerful people unhappy.

He was the most important single figure who shifted the global economics profession away from socialist ideas and injected liberal thoughts back into the political landscape. He lived to see the tremendous impact of improved economic policy on the prosperity of the US, the UK and Chile, some of the countries which executed a radical shift away from socialist economic policy.

The biggest miracle in human history, where there has been poverty reduction on a large scale, was the drop in poverty in China and India after 1980 owing to faster GDP growth. Never before has there been such a large mass of people escaping poverty. If a prize was to be awarded for the person who did the most in terms of helping people escape from poverty, it should go to Milton Friedman, for he was the most important single figure to have made it possible for China and India to escape from socialism.