Not too long before the great, lastingly lucid economist Milton Friedman died this month at the age of 94, he gave a newspaper interview that the walloped Republicans, as well as the victorious Democrats, should heed — the Republicans if they want to return to power some day, the Democrats if they want to serve the country well and maintain congressional control.
"I am not concerned with deficits in the federal budget at all," Friedman told The San Jose Mercury News. "I am concerned with the level of the federal budget. I’d rather have a $1 trillion budget with a deficit of $1 trillion than have a $2 trillion budget that is completely balanced with taxes."
Friedman didn’t mean by the remark that he liked deficits, just that the evil of financing them was no worse than the evil of high taxes and that the cure for both was a reduction in spending that would simultaneously give people more control over their own money and lives — more freedom.
Freedom — that was a constant theme of Friedman’s, not as a happy-face platitude, but as a precisely envisioned agenda backed up by the kind of scholarship that won him a Nobel Prize in economics.
He knew that government, while crucial for certain functions, was essentially wasteful and no match for a relatively unfettered, competitive marketplace and its millions of choice-making consumers in building prosperity and achieving excellence in its services and products.
Sadly, such insights failed to overcome the self-interestedness of many congressional Republicans who figured a million in earmarks here, and some billions for other programs over there, would assure them of keeping their seats in the recent mid-term elections.
Bad statesmanship, bad bet.
A return not just to the rhetoric of old, but to a sustained, disciplined and well-informed, Friedman-like fiscal restraint might restore them to public esteem and, ultimately, to the political rewards that follow.
Similarly, Democrats might find themselves appreciated not just as a momentary rescue from Republican perfidy but as a long-term benefit to the common good if they would risk offending their hard-core, semi-socialist base with tax-abating austerity.
The congressional Republicans and Democrats — in fact, elected officials at all levels of government — would do well to embrace or at least give open-minded, honestly reflective attention to still other Friedman ideas, such as private Social Security accounts and public vouchers for education in private schools.
It was partly his espousal of these proposals on a nationally broadcast TV show and in other formats that brought them to widespread public debate, just as his detailed, immaculate research and jargon-free clarity were a major cause of gradually refocusing U.S. money-supply policy and lessening reliance on tax-and-spend fiscal policy. He had a major impact on this country.
He also had an impact on me.
The more I listened to people trying to refute him over the years, the more I realized they were doing no such thing. I don’t mean by this that he was beyond error, only that he usually seemed twice as well-grounded and acute in his observations as those who opposed him. Largely because of him, I began to reconsider a liberalism that had me in a headlock much of my young adulthood.
Quite a man, this Milton Friedman. And someone whose ideas remain worth heeding.
Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com