Book review: Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman

originally posted elsewhere: January 5, 2006

tl;dr: If you read just one book on economics in your life, make it this one...

Twenty-five years after its original publication as the book companion to a PBS series, Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose: A Personal Statement remains a highly relevant, easy to read, classic tome expounding the virtues of free market capitalism and the flaws and dangers of socialism and government control of the economy.

The Friedman's brilliance in Free to Choose is to continually demonstrate how government control inhibits personal freedom, whereas free market capitalism is what results when individuals have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". The roots of the Friedmans’ arguments go all the way back to the Jeffersonian concept of liberty as defined in the Declaration of Independence. Modern-day liberalism, which still believes in the "right to choose" in many social arenas (in fact, these exact words are used by abortion rights supporters), does not believe in an individual's right to choose in economic manners (e.g. liberalism would say a woman can choose to have an abortion, but it should be provided by a doctor working in the government run healthcare system). When the Friedmans describe their ideal economic system and practices, they are describing the principles of classical liberalism, or libertarianism. In Free to Choose, the Friedmans present the basic arguments of libertarianism in engaging, persuasive language using layman's terms.

The Friedmans have obviously won many converts. Milton Friedman was one of the intellectual forces behind the Reagan revolution, and showed how to boost the U.S. economy by lowering marginal tax rates and reducing government regulation. He is the father of school vouchers, to give poor Americans the opportunity to choose the schools their children attend (this is described in Free to Choose chapter six). He won a Nobel Prize for his monetary theories, and Free to Choose includes an analysis of the monetary failures that Friedman claims both led to and prolonged the Great Depression.

A book cover with an off-white background featuring an image of a globe with three people opening drawers in the globe which are overflowing with items representing a factory and various products, above which is the book's title and below which are the authors' names

Free to Choose covers many other important economic topics. The Friedmans present strong arguments in favor of free trade, which is constantly under attack in the halls of Congress. They describe the downsides of government regulation, and show how it can lead to the opposite of the intended effects. An entire chapter is devoted to the cause and cure for inflation, a problem that bedeviled the U.S. in the 1970s and that gave rise to the Reagan revolution. But I would cite chapter five, entitled "Created Equal", as the single most important chapter in the book. The Friedmans show how the concept of equality has changed since the country's founding, and show the dangers of "equality of outcome", which many misguided politicians and other leaders appear to want, although not individuals (else why do so few choose to live in communes?).

I've heard it said that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hands out copies of this book as gifts. If so, he should be careful about passing out copies to his Kennedy in-laws, as this book just might cause Ted Kennedy's mind to blow if he ever bothered to read it. Someday, the last of the old guard socialists such as Castro and Ted Kennedy will pass on, thereby providing more opportunity for the "turning tide" towards economic freedom that the Friedmans describe in the last chapter of Free to Choose to become even more prevalent.