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My Hero Dies

Last week I lost a hero. He died at the age of 94 after a life of influencing the world with bold ideas, reasoned arguments and remarkable energy. I first met him in high school. I didn't meet him personally, but I saw a TV series he starred in as well as produced. But he wasn't a movie or an entertainment star he was far from it, at just 5 feet tall. He wasn't an exceptional athlete, he didn't create a successful business and become wealthy and he never held a political office of any importance. Yet, this Jewish immigrant strongly influenced my life and became a champion of liberty on the planet in an immeasurable way. Years later, I met him again, along with his equally brilliant wife and it became a truly memorable moment in my life. He gave me a bit of personal advice that I want to share with you a little bit later (and let you see the videos which were a part of my first introduction). But first some background on my hero, Milton Friedman.

I grew up poor and moved around a lot. My focus was on day to day life struggles and not getting beat up as the perennial new kid in class. I was largely unaware of the battle between political and economic systems captured in the Communism/Socialism vs Capitalism struggles encompassing the planet in the 1900s. Fortunately my History/Economics teacher had a bit more macro view of the world and decided it would be a good idea to dedicate a few classes to show a TV series. While many kids used the darkened room to catch up on sleep, I intently watched what was, to my young mind, the most provocative work I had seen. It talked about freedom, but not with seemingly ancient historical references of religious persecution, but in the context of today's societies with examples from around the world.

The TV series was called Free To Choose and explained how markets and voluntary exchange organize activity and improve people's lives. It was highly critical of centralized planning whether in a socialistic government or a well intentioned democracy as being inefficient and, more importantly, depriving people of liberty by taking their money and limiting their choices (or forcing choices upon them). It emphasized that free markets are a cornerstone of freedom since many of life's choices revolve around economics. (Remarkably there was no script, all of Milton's comments to the camera were extemporaneous.)

After this video, I was able to put some sense into how the world works and what makes the United States and other free countries great. Yes, it's freedom of religion and democracy, but more importantly it was the fact that people were free to make life choices and these invariably revolve around how they make money, how much they keep and what they spend it on.

Biographies refers to Milton Friedman as a nobel winning economist, but that minimizes his contributions. It's true he wrote works on Federal monetary policy which influenced governments around the world, but Milton was really a freedom fighter. He championed liberty using dollars and sense so that the everyday person could understand the impact on their own lives. He advocated individual autonomy and personal freedoms in the mid 20th Century when such ideas were disdained and governments were becoming increasingly parochial. His ideas altered the development of our planet pushing it further towards freedom.

Some of the ideas Milton advocated:

  • Personal retirement accounts instead of government mandated and controlled system.
  • School choice. Our Universities are the envy of the world and our public schools are not. What's the big difference? Choice.
  • Abolishing the military draft.
  • Negative income tax to eliminate poverty which became the foundation for today's Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • School vouchers. Rich kids get a great education anywhere, poor kids should have the same choices.
  • Investments in human capital to maximize the efficiency of the most important commodity.
  • Minimizing government mandated trade associations which restrict options and drive up costs (such as the American Medical Association).
  • A single rate flat income tax now being adopted by a wide range of governments.
  • Legalizing prostitution as a matter of personal choice.
  • Legalizing of drugs as an individual freedom.
After I had some business success with MP3.com, I decided to reach out to my long time hero to see if I could meet him personally. I called his office and he surprisingly accepted my request to meet and chat with him. I spent some time before the visit thinking about what one question I could ask.

I flew up to San Francisco and visited him and his wife Rose in their San Francisco apartment. They offered me a cold glass of water and we talked about my Internet and business experience. Then I asked Milton the question I had come up with. "How do you make the world a better place?"

His answer was, "If you want to improve the world you have to create more capital. While creating non-profits makes people feel better, the only way to fundamentally improve living conditions is to create more business." I left the meeting puzzling over that answer. It was a bit more abstract than I was hoping for. Later he sent me some photocopied pages from several books with a nice note.

Over the years I've had time to think about his response. I've come to the conclude it was the most succinct and accurate response possible. Capital is gasoline for the great engine of economic development which creates jobs, grows wealth and responds to consumers needs and desires.

Milton's life was not about gaining personal power or wealth, but about sharing ideas. On hearing about Milton's passing, I wanted to make sure I'm doing what I can to carry on those ideas. So I partnered with Bob Chitester who runs the IdeaChannel which will now broadcast the entire ground breaking Free To Choose series online for free.

Thanks for all you did Milton. I will miss you.

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