In 1980, PBS first aired Milton Friedman’s series, “Free to Choose,” which chronicled the glories of liberty across a range of areas, from welfare policy and education to healthcare, monetary policy, and beyond.
In a new 19-minute documentary, Johan Norberg revisits Friedman’s famous episode on trade, applying its core arguments to our modern economic context and debate, summarizing the key arguments with refreshing concision.
Friedman’s episode rested heavily on the story of Hong Kong, which he visited in the original series. Norberg returns to the city, even tracking down and interviewing a business owner who has adapted his enterprise throughout the economic changes of the past few decades.
The episode highlights the arguments for trade as it relates to efficiency, economic dynamism and diversification, innovation and creative destruction, and equal opportunity. Yet as I argued rather recently, the material features offer but a hint of other baseline benefits, which are ultimately social and spiritual.
On this, Friedman connects the dots accordingly, noting the benefits of trade when it comes to fostering harmony and collaboration among workers, trade partners, foreign countries, and even competitors. “The operation of the free market is so essential, not only to promote productive efficiency,” Friedman explains, “but even more, to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.”
Further, in an age where free and open exchange is now ridiculed as benefiting only a conspiratorial global elite, Friedman reminds us that it is trade, not protectionism, that ultimately benefits the least powerful in a society. Indeed, the more “protections,” the more cronyism.
As Friedman explains, “the major beneficiaries are always the small man”:
When people are free, they are able to use their own resources most effectively and you have a great deal of productivity, a great deal of opportunity. The major beneficiaries are always the small man. The man who has power who is at the top of a society, he’s going to do well whatever kind of society you have. It’s the society which gives the small man the opportunity to go his way, which is going to benefit him the most.
The more basic economic arguments are important, and they will always be worth revisiting and reexamining and re-articulating. Norberg reminds us how well Friedman covered those bases, but more importantly, of his enduring contributions on the deeper and more profound social value of liberty itself.