Friedman luxuriated in capitalist successes. A fundamentally optimistic man, he never lost his conviction that the free market showered its richest benefits on those who were often readiest to criticize it. He saw the removal of barriers and regulations as the best way to help poor people, minorities, and, most of all, developing countries. “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are,” he observed cheerfully. “It does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to help one another.”
George Shultz, Reagan’s patriotic secretary of state, once described Friedman as the most influential man of the 20th century. An odd observation, on the surface. Sure, Friedman did as much as anyone to end the Keynesian consensus and offer a popular alternative to socialist economics. But was he more influential than, say, Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan or Deng Xiaoping?
It depends on what we mean by influence. Politicians shape events, but only within the parameters of what is ideologically feasible. “It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things,” Friedman told an interviewer in 1977. “The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.” Less than three years later, Reagan, Thatcher, and Deng were devolving power in their respective countries, seeking to tilt the balance back, however slightly, from state to citizen.