By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
The diversity of The New Student Union’s writers’ views stretches across the ideological spectrum. As a result, it would not be surprising if there’s disagreement with the policy proposals that the late Milton Friedman advocated. Yet, the crucial role that he has played in allowing students to enjoy the lives they do today should not go unnoticed.
The person who The Economist described as “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly all of it,” was a man who reached the level of a cultural icon at his zenith, appearing frequently on popular talk shows. He even had his own mini-series on PBS.
Friedman’s policy proposals ranged from the establishment of school vouchers to the legalization of marijuana–views that were simply radical in the 1960s. Among Friedman’s other proposals were the legalization of prostitution and abolition of minimum wage–views that sound simply radical today.
However, none of Friedman’s efforts may have been as life-changing for so many Americans as his steadfast commitment to abolishing the military draft. Conscription in the U.S. made military service mandatory for American males over the age of 18.
In his 1998 memoirs, Friedman describes his Congressional testimony and exchange with U.S. Army General William Westmoreland. The General commanded U.S. military operations in the Vietnam War at its peak.
“In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary General; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we heard from the General about mercenaries.”
The abolition of the military draft was not entirely the work of Milton Friedman. But as an effective communicator and one of the most high-profile figures who publicly expressed his dismay with a policy that he referred to as, “inconsistent with a free society,” Friedman’s fight assisted in granting the youth of our generation unprecedented opportunities.
Today, high school graduates (and non-graduates) have the liberty to forge their life path as they see fit, whether that includes going to college, working, or volunteering their lives to defend our country’s national security–with much better benefits than in the 1960s.
I’ll never know whether or not I would have received a phone call or letter requesting that I report to the nearest Army base to be flown out two weeks later for an assignment in Baghdad. But that very prospect is the biggest reason why Milton Friedman gets a warm thank you from me.
Milton would have been 99 today.