For Wrong People to do the Right Thing

“We will not solve our problem by electing the right people. We will only solve our problem by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.” — Milton Friedman.

He was one of the greatest economists of the 20th century not just because of his academic contributions but also because he was tireless in his public outreach. Unlike his colleagues whom he greatly respected, such as Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan (both amazing scholars) who did not address the general public, Friedman patiently explained economics to everyone who cared to ask him.

It is never too late to start learning from his books and lectures about how to think about public policy. Here’s an excerpt from one such Q&A session:

Transcript:

I don’t believe there is any fundamental difference between the policies of President Carter and the policies of President Ford. They both have adopted policies which are politically profitable. Suppose you go back and look at the previous administrations. Can you see any connection between the professed objectives of the people who sought office and what they did when they got into office?

You know every president of whatever party has the capacity once elected to rise above campaign promises. [Audience laughter.] There was Richard Nixon, a right-wing free enterprise politician, very effective in his pre-election statements. Nobody in this country gave better speeches against price and wage control than Richard Nixon did. Nobody in this country was a stronger anti-communists than Richard Nixon was. Upon being elected, as president he makes a trip to China and on [unclear] with Communist China and he proceeds to impose price and wage control here is.

His successor, Gerry Ford, a splendid congressman, a fine man, a man firmly in favor of free enterprise system. As president he signs a bill continuing price controls on oil. That’s when he lost me. Now so I say to you I think that the issue is not a partisan issue.  We will not solve our problem by electing the right people; we will only solve our problem by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.

To watch the entire Q&A, click here.

This core idea is this: if the system is such that even bad people not only are not able to do harm but are motivated by their own self-interest (which we assume is to attain and retain political office) to do the right thing.

James Buchanan wrote in his book Limits of Liberty, “If men should cease and desist from their talk about and their search for evil men and commence to look instead at the institutions manned by ordinary people, wide avenues for genuine social reform might appear.” If the institutions are right, and then even ordinary, flawed people will not be disastrous for the country.

2 thoughts on “For Wrong People to do the Right Thing

  1. Prabhudesai Monday January 11, 2021 / 3:48 am

    If I were to list people who made me change my mind about how the world works Friedman easily comes on top. No other economist that I have heard can match Friedman when it comes to his ability to use very simple, relatable language and explain fairly complex ideas to a diverse crowd.

    Like

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