Film Review: 'The Power of Choice,' A Milton Friedman Special

"The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman" is scheduled to air on PBS Monday, Jan. 29, 2007 at 10 p.m. ET. For local listings click here.

     “The Power of Choice,” a documentary on the life and ideas of Milton Friedman, is an excellent film, but it should have been titled "The Power of Ideas." It is the inspiring story of how a son of poor immigrants by the power of his ideas changed the lives of millions of people for the better.

     Milton Friedman was a true champion of freedom, as the film makes clear, because he not only had ideas but advanced them in the face of unrelenting hostility. Gary Becker, another Nobel Laureate, explains that Friedman was able to persevere and have such great influence because he was an optimist, his analysis was clear and straightforward, and he felt he was right.

     The film is fascinating and well done. It begins by showing the modern Estonia and Chile, reflecting on how the average citizen in these countries has prospered due to the movement to a market economy. It then interviews political and business leaders in the two countries who make it clear that the success of their economies is the result of the ideas of one economics professor from the University of Chicago. China and India are being transformed by these same ideas, creating wealth in these countries unimagined a few years ago.

     Prominent in the film are comments by Gary Becker, Alan Greenspan, Thomas Sowell and Martin Anderson, all of whom give interesting insights into Friedman and his ideas. One gets a quick economic and political history of the United States as the film follows Friedman through the various stages of his life, from high school through college, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the Nobel Prize and the Reagan revolution.

      “The Power of Choice” also lets you in on the personal life of Milton and Rose Friedman, who were happily married for six decades. You come away with the sense of the love the members of the Friedman family had for one another. The home movies are fascinating, and the views of their summer homes in New England and California remind one of the Thoreau's “Walden Pond,” revealing the Friedmans' need to get away from it all to settle their thoughts.

     The best parts of the film, still, are when you get to hear Friedman himself. As Becker noted, his analysis is clear and persuasive at all times, but it was his quickness of thought and repartee that allowed him to dominate his opponents in debate. The clips of John Kenneth Galbraith give the sense of the disdain the profession generally had for Friedman prior to his Nobel Prize. At one point Galbraith calls him a "one-cause man," referring to Friedman's theory of monetarism.

     One reason Friedman's ideas moved from what was considered quirky and at the fringe of the academic community to what is now mainstream – whether it is the natural rate of unemployment, monetary theory, the permanent income hypothesis, or choice in schools – is that he was able to explain the benefits of individual liberty and choice in a manner that anyone could grasp.  

     Greenspan explains that Friedman would talk the same way to high school students as he did to presidents. We find that another Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson, talked Friedman into doing a weekly column for Newsweek. Friedman comments that he was afraid he wouldn't have something to say every week, but that it turned out to be one of the most effective ways he had of getting his ideas popularized.

     The section on filming “Free to Choose” is especially interesting. We learn that Friedman had three requirements to do the series: no gimmicks, no talking down to the audience, and most amazing, no script. This series, as well as the book that Milton and Rose wrote from the soundtrack, were certainly a factor in the election of Ronald Reagan and the eventual liberation of the countries behind what Churchill called the Iron Curtain.

     The film does a fine job of showing that Milton Friedman was more than a champion of liberty, a Nobel prizewinner and an advisor to presidents. He was a genuinely nice person, unassuming and interested in others. “The Power of Choice” is a fitting legacy to a Midwestern university professor who changed millions of lives for the better – millions who may never know his name but have him to thank for their liberty and prosperity.  

Dr. Gary L. Wolfram is the George Munson Professor of political economy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. He also serves as an adviser to the Business & Media Institute.