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Milton Friedman was right, Thomas Friedman is not

In a column again lamenting the benighted state of the United States, Thomas Friedman criticizes China’s treatment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu is a political prisoner serving an 11-year sentence for subverting state power. Of course, just a bit more than a year ago, Friedman was comparing the U.S. government with China’s — unfavorably! ...

Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI
Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI
Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI

In a column again lamenting the benighted state of the United States, Thomas Friedman criticizes China's treatment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu is a political prisoner serving an 11-year sentence for subverting state power. Of course, just a bit more than a year ago, Friedman was comparing the U.S. government with China's -- unfavorably!

On Sept. 8, 2009 he wrote, "[I]t is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

Friedman went on to note approvingly Beijing's ability to command orderly entry into the clean technology industry, versus the United States' reliance on chaotic markets.

In a column again lamenting the benighted state of the United States, Thomas Friedman criticizes China’s treatment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu is a political prisoner serving an 11-year sentence for subverting state power. Of course, just a bit more than a year ago, Friedman was comparing the U.S. government with China’s — unfavorably!

On Sept. 8, 2009 he wrote, "[I]t is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

Friedman went on to note approvingly Beijing’s ability to command orderly entry into the clean technology industry, versus the United States’ reliance on chaotic markets.

Of course, Milton Friedman understood, but Thomas Friedman apparently does not, that over the long haul, capitalism and freedom work together, and that they are not separable from each other. The Beijing government’s powers to throw a human rights activist in jail and to command massive economic projects are of a piece. They are antithetical to representative democracy and rule of law.

It is understandable that in these tough times people will question how well our system is working, but some perspective is necessary. The past 100 years of U.S. economic performance are unmatched in human history. The engine of the U.S. economy powered enormous improvements in the health, welfare, and living standards of hundreds of millions of people. The political and economic freedoms guaranteed by our system of government made such prosperity, innovation, and achievement possible.

Twenty-five years ago, the passing intellectual fancy was the United States’ decline relative to another rising Asian power, Japan, because of Tokyo’s ability to plan economic growth and manage private sector investment. Such predictions look silly today.

Warren Buffett, who has the true perspective of a long term investor, has observed, "In the 20th Century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497."

As we consider what is next for the United States, rather than turning to the coercive power of centralized planning, as Thomas Friedman seems to consider, we should affirm our confidence in the values that have brought us so far — capitalism and freedom — as Milton Friedman knew. Nobody ever made money for long by selling America or American values short.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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