Editorial: The City should honor Friedman

Suppose you lived in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. In fact, centuries hence, historians reflexively would name it along with Athens, Paris, Rome and London for its contributions to the arts, science, political economy, philosophy. Whom would you name as your city’s most influential citizen?

Nancy Pelosi? She does own at least a footnote in history as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. But her legacy is yet to be made; whatever happens or doesn’t happen on Capitol Hill over the next two years may leave her contented with her name on an office building annex.

Perhaps we should look to the arts, always more edifying than legislation anyway. Michael Tilson Thomas, Jerry Garcia, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac — we’d better stop, the list being inexhaustible. San Francisco’s cultural impact, for better or worse, is worldwide.

These ruminations come with the passing, last week, at 94, of Milton Friedman, probably the world’s most renowned economist. This most influential of scholars adopted San Francisco as his home 30 years ago at about the time he won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Though he took up residence on Russian Hill, his life as a public intellectual was taken to heart, and his recommendations put into practice, far and wide — but not so much in The City. That is because he stood philosophically athwart the “progressivism” that had become a hallmark of this urban laboratory by the Bay.

Friedman’s monetarism, embraced by the Federal Reserve Board, gave us a quarter-century of low inflation. His eloquent championing of free-market economics grew into the formal model on which many formerly socialist countries — including those of the old Eastern Bloc, China and Vietnam — base their economic policies.

His insight that economic and political freedoms are unbreakably related inspired dissidents on every continent, and we rather wish some of the Republicans who called him teacher understood why opportunity-seeking immigrants should be placed in that context. Likewise, without Milton Friedman, we would not have an all-volunteer military, which is so high-tech and mentally invigorating that it is beyond John Kerry’s poor powers to comprehend.

Friedman, in the true San Francisco tradition, defied the contradictions of political parties because of his consistent libertarianism. He foresaw the failure of the drug war because, as a massive statist mobilization, it created a hideously violent underground economy. He was a friend to many in The City, even if The City’s regulation-minded political class couldn’t befriend him.

Milton Friedman has died, his ideas universallyvindicated. Could we not have at least a street named for him? How does “Free Market Street” sound?

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