It’s the late Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday. R.I.P., his truth is marching on. From the Nobel laureate’s famous exchange with the original sensitive man, even before Alan Alda.
Donahue: When you see around the globe the mal-distribution of wealth, the desperate plight of millions of people in underdeveloped countries, when you see so few haves and so many have-nots, when you see the greed and the concentration of power, did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea to run on?
Friedman: Well, first of all, tell me is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course none of us are greedy; its only the other fellow who’s greedy.
The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear: that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.
Donahue: But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system.
Friedman: And what does reward virtue? You think the communist commissar rewards virtue? You think a Hitler rewards virtue? You think – excuse me, if you will pardon me – do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self interest is nobler somehow than economic self interest? You know I think you are taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us? Well, I don’t even trust you to do that.