Milton Friedman’s documentary series Free To Choose first aired on PBS 40 years ago. It was an unapologetic defense of why capitalism was both morally and pragmatically superior to socialism. Over the course of 10 hour-long episodes, the Nobel laureate economist laid out the pitfalls of protectionism, espoused the virtues of school choice, and explained why spending, not taxes, is the real measure of the burden that governments put on their citizens. In each episode, Friedman engaged leading liberal and progressive thinkers such as The Other America author Michael Harrington, teachers union leader Albert Shanker, and sociologist Francis Fox Piven in spirited debate.
Free To Choose has been translated into two dozen languages and a companion book, co-authored by Milton and his wife Rose, became a New York Times bestseller and a Book of the Month Club main selection. The original 1980 series and an updated 1990 version, both of which can be viewed here for free, enjoy continued popularity online.
The visionary producer behind Free To Choose was Bob Chitester, a hardcore free marketeer who ran the PBS affiliate in Erie, Pennsylvania, and wanted to bring libertarian ideas to mainstream audiences. Before the show, says Chitester, programs about free markets “were really muckraking attacks on what was perceived to be abusive and unsympathetic…capitalism, where profit was all that mattered.” Free To Choose talked about capitalism in upbeat, positive terms, stressing how it helped individuals rather than exploited them and how it brought about cooperation in a way that benefitted the poor most of all.
Did Friedman make any mistakes in Free To Choose? Before his death in 2006, Friedman came to question his famous axiom that economic freedom in autocracies such as China would inexorably give rise to political and cultural freedoms, Chitester says. “In a discussion close to near the end of his life, he said, ‘Bob, I made a mistake. I was wrong. You [also] have to have rule of law. You have to have law that applies equally to everyone,'” recalls Chitester. “And clearly that’s what you see not happening in China.”
Ailing from a long bout with cancer, Chitester is contemplating his own mortality and how American society has changed since Free To Choose first aired 40 years ago. He’s proud that the program remains popular online but, like Friedman, feels its analysis is incomplete. “Power is really something we have to factor into our thinking….The desire of humans to tell other humans what to do—when you couple that with equality, boy, you’ve got a recipe for constant problems in defending a classical liberal society.”
Narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Additional Graphics by Meredith Bragg. Feature Image by Lex Villena.
Photos: Free to Choose Network; M. Chan/SCMP/Newscom; Jon Hargest/SCMP/Newscom; Everett Collection/Newscom; UPPA/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Mark Richards/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Post Staff Photographer/SCMP/Newscom; Post Staff Photographer/SCMP/Newscom; Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom; Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons Flickr; Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons Flickr; Jon Hargest/SCMP/Newscom