Friday, November 17, 2006

Free to Choose

Today passed one of the 3 greatest figures of the 20th century: Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and now, Milton Friedman. We owe more to him, in a way, than either of the previous figures. He freed our Economy, our military, our schools...Please read "Free to Choose" if you have not already done so. You will be stunned to find that so many of today's ways of thinking, of today's policies, all came from the mind of one man...T

I first met Ronald Reagan in 1967, shortly after he had become governor of California. We talked about his plans for higher education in the state. He clearly understood the economics of higher education—a system in California whereby the residents of Watts subsidized the college education of the children from Beverly Hills—and was determined to do something about it.

I first realized what a truly extraordinary person he was in early 1973 when I spent an unforgettable day with him barnstorming across California to promote his Proposition 1—an amendment to the state constitution that would set a limit to the amount the state could spend in any year. We flew in a small private plane from place to place and at each stop held a press conference. In between, Governor Reagan talked freely about his life and views. By the time we returned to our final press interview in Los Angeles, I was able to give an enthusiastic yes to a reporter’s question as to whether I would support Reagan for president. And, I may say, I have never been disappointed since.

Proposition 1 was narrowly defeated, but it started a movement that is still very much alive, as evidenced by the recent passage of a “Prop 1” look-alike in Colorado. Moreover, it was only one way of achieving one major component of his policy from the beginning of his career: holding down non-defense government spending as a way to limit the size of government. Defense spending was another thing. It financed a—or the—basic function of the federal government, and he used it for his great achievement of winning the Cold War by outspending the Soviet Union without having to outfight it on a bloody battlefield.

President Reagan had extraordinary success in changing the course of non-defense spending (see figure 1). The trend before Reagan is one of galloping socialism. Had it continued, federal non-defense spending would be more than half again what it is now. Reagan brought the gallop to a literal standstill. He did so in three ways:

• First, by slashing tax rates and so cutting Congress’s allowance.

• Second, by being willing to take a severe recession to end inflation. In my opinion, no other post-war president would have been willing to back the Volcker Fed in its tough stance in 1981–82. I can testify from personal knowledge that Reagan knew what he was doing. He understood that there was no way of ending inflation without monetary restraint and a temporary recession. As in every area, he stuck to his principles and looked at the long term.

• Third, and in some ways the least recognized, by attacking government regulations. Figure 2 tells as remarkable a story as Figure 1. It plots the number of pages added to the Federal Register each year. The Federal Register records the thousands of detailed rules and regulations that federal agencies churn out in the course of a year. They are not laws and yet they have the effect of laws and like laws impose costs and restrain activities. Here too, the period before President Reagan was one of galloping socialism. The Reagan years were ones of retreating socialism, and the post-Reagan years, of creeping socialism.
To Reagan, of course, holding down government spending was a means to an end, not an end in itself. That end was freedom, human freedom, the right of every individual to pursue his own objectives and values so long as he does not interfere with the corresponding right of others. That was his end in every phase of his remarkable career.

We still have a long way to go to achieve the optimum degree of freedom. But few people in human history have contributed more to the achievement of human freedom than Ronald Wilson Reagan.
This essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 11, 2004.
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