Monday, March 05, 2007

Scholarly Notes: Milton Friedman

March column for Or Adam:

For this month's column, we move to the present day to look at one of the most influential secular Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. Milton Friedman was born on July 31, 1912 in Brooklyn, NY to an Orthodox Jewish family. As Friedman recalls, he was fanatic in his preteen years about observing the Jewish laws. He began, however, to question the rational basis for these laws and finding none, rejected religion.

Friedman won the Noble Prize in Economics in 1976. He was also awarded the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. His major achievements were in economic theory, but not just in academia. Friedman worked for several federal administrations starting with President Franklin Roosevelt. While working at the Department of Treasury during World War II, Friedman helped to invent the payroll withholding tax system that most of us are all too familiar with and that Friedman would later regret. He was an adviser for several U.S. presidents, including Presidents Nixon and Reagan, as well as British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. Serving on the Gates Commission--President Nixon's Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Force--Friedman was a vigorous and ultimately victorious voice against the military draft. Friedman also was the intellectual force behind school choice, proposing in 1955 a system of school vouchers to introduce competition and choice into education.

Friedman communicated his economic and political ideas to the general public as well. He made a popular series with PBS in 1980 called "Free to Choose" which was later made into a bestselling book by the same name. It was updated in 1990 and is now available for free on the web: He wrote a regular column for Newsweek from 1966 until 1983 and gave lectures around the world.

The focus of most of his work was on economics and politics with the goal of creating and spreading more autonomy and freedom throughout the world. Friedman did not speak about god or religion often. From what he does say, it is clear that Friedman viewed the question of god as unanswerable, unverifiable, and ultimately irrelevant. What was important was that individuals had the freedom to choose and live their lives. Milton Friedman died at the age of 94 on November 16, 2006.

Sources: Wikipedia; interview, Academy of Achievement; biography, Cato Institute.

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