John Maynard Keynes famously quipped, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Free-market economist Milton Friedman, however, actually did manage to capture the minds not only of practical men, but of politicians and even other intellectuals. He understood that the world would change if people understood the meaning of freedom.
Historic social and political movements began with powerful ideas. For instance, the rise of the Roman Empire predicated itself on the idea of Roman citizenship and a sense of personal duty, and America’s founding relied on a distinct knowledge of personal liberty and its implied negative rights. Pivotal events, such as shifts of culture or the rise of a new state, occur in response to the outcomes of various conflicts in an ongoing war of ideas.
Milton Friedman joined this intellectual struggle knowing that education provides the best weapon. Most importantly, he believed education was a personal undertaking. This perception led to his recognition that most current “education” was actually compulsory schooling or training. The government mandated that children attend taxpayer-funded schools where little to no actual education ever occurred. His solution: school vouchers, which enabled parents to choose where they think their children will be best educated, whether it be public schools, private schools, charter schools or even home schools. Vouchers redirect taxpayer dollars from bureaucrats to the families who need them, coupling education and choice to make the greatest impact.
Friedman’s book “Free to Choose” and a subsequent television series highlight the tenets behind the power of ideas and an education’s role in shaping those ideas. Free markets result from a combination of individual choice and scarcity of information. They offer great benefits, but require individuals to trade with each other in order to obtain them. These types of exchanges only result when individuals possess freedom of choice. This idea undergirded America’s economy until progressive promotion of increased centralization eroded individual choice and increased government meddling in the economy. Thanks to their efforts, a large portion of Americans now hold the institution of federal government responsible for their every need, from the cradle to the grave.
Ultimately, Friedman recognized education’s foundational role in changing society’s institutions. Sustainable political change must be preceded by sustainable social change, which can only result from education. The battle of ideas starts in our schools. Friedman knew ideas like individual choice and freedom had lost significant ground there, but he also recognized that the ground could be regained by letting people choose how they want to educate themselves. He, like economist F.A Harper, knew that “men who know freedom will find ways to be free.”