Despite his renown as a Nobel Prize-winning economist and best-selling author, most people came to know the late Milton Friedman through television. His 10-part 1980 series, “Free to Choose,” was so popular that it aired three times on public television and is even now adding fans via a free Internet video-stream (www.ideachannel.tv).
So it’s fitting that the original team of producers for “Free to Choose” returned to PBS Monday (declared “Milton Friedman Day” in California by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco) with a 90-minute intellectual biography called “The Power of Choice: The Life and Times of Milton Friedman.” (Many public television stations are airing the program at other times this week; check local listings.)
The show ranges far and wide to show the influence of Friedman’s thought. Former Prime Minister Mart Laar of Estonia, a former Soviet satellite that turned to free markets in desperation after independence, says that “the only book about economy what I read was ‘Free to Choose,’ but there was a lot of good ideas in there, and I introduced a big part of those.” Such Friedmanite reforms as a 23% flat-rate income tax (soon to fall to 20%) have led the latest “Index of Economic Freedom” to list Estonia as the 12th most free economy in the world, ahead of Denmark and the Netherlands. The show is chock-full of tributes from figures as diverse as Alan Greenspan and Gov. Schwarzenegger.
As much as the show is a celebration of Friedman’s life and work, it also showcases the remarkable entrepreneur who made it and “Free to Choose” possible. Bob Chitester produced the original series while serving as the only public-TV station manager in the country who didn’t believe in government subsidies. A tireless promoter, he raised the equivalent of $8 million today for the series–entirely from private sources, an achievement that delighted Friedman.
Mr. Chitester came to the project with an unusual background. In 1966, he became the general manager of the PBS station in Erie, Pa., at age 29. An opponent of the Vietnam War, he handed out literature for George McGovern in 1972 and admits he knew nothing about economics. Then, in 1976, he met with economist W. Allen Wallis, who gave him a copy of Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” Mr. Chitester soaked it up, became a believer in markets, and immediately began pursuing Friedman to do a series that would provide a counterpoint to one by liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith that PBS was airing.
After all these years, Mr. Chitester is still surprised by how easily Friedman’s cooperation came. “I was a bearded, leather-jacketed, small-town TV executive, yet he treated me as competent and honorable, as he did everyone he met, until you proved otherwise,” he recalls.
Surprisingly, Friedman insisted on not writing a script in advance of filming. The points that would be made in each scene were discussed, but his commentary was extemporaneous. This resulted in such gems as the economist sitting in a sweatshop in New York’s Chinatown, where he recalled the days when his mother worked in a similar environment. “Life was hard,” Friedman noted, “but opportunity was real.” He then transports the audience to a junk floating in the harbor of Hong Kong, “the freest market in the world,” where Friedman discusses how the then-British colony’s leaders refused to collect some economic statistics because they feared they would be used as an excuse for government intervention in the booming economy.
Since the success of “Free to Choose,” Mr. Chitester has gone on to produce programs that range across time and space, from a dramatization of how the Pilgrims realized the importance of private property to a series on private space exploration. He has produced five teaching kits based on John Stossel’s ABC News TV specials that have been used in 84,000 classrooms to encourage more rigorous thinking about science and economics.
Today, Mr. Chitester is most excited about a two-hour program he is producing featuring Hernando de Soto. A Peruvian economist, Mr. de Soto has been the target of murder attempts by drug barons and Marxist terrorists who fear his message that the poor in developing nations need true capitalism–property rights, markets and the rule of law. Time magazine recently named him one of the five leading Latin American innovators of the century.
Mr. de Soto warns that capitalism isn’t working for the majority of the world’s people. This is largely because economic elites use their power to restrict competition, limit access to capital and promote their vested interests over those less fortunate. That, in turn, undermines the potential of free markets to spread wealth and opportunity in the same way that has made developed nations so successful. “The poor are not the problem; they are the solution,” Mr. de Soto says. “Give them access to land titles that can be used for collateral, the rule of law, a responsive bureaucracy and streamlined tools of business, and you will see creativity and entrepreneurial self-reliance flourish.”
The program being planned for Mr. de Soto will take him from an Albanian village, where ancient disputes over who owns what land are prompting young people to leave the country, to the office of a Tanzanian banker who has tried in vain for 12 years to get a mortgage. Increasingly, Mr. de Soto says Americans need to appreciate how much developing nations are dominated by an extralegal economy that must be brought into the mainstream. “What Bob is proposing is an eye-opening look at how to finally make poor countries wealthy by empowering their people,” says Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute.
But TV’s evangelist for capitalism has other projects, too. He has storyboards done for a series on Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish scientist who has gathered Nobel laureates together to agree on where money should be spent to safeguard human life. (Hint: global-warming curbs are far down the list.) A program on the life of former Secretary of State George Shultz is in the works.
This week’s PBS special pays tribute to the many achievements of Milton Friedman. One that is often underappreciated is the extent to which he demonstrated how visual images could influence and shape public debate. As his most ardent electronic disciple, Bob Chitester deserves the free-market community’s equivalent of an Oscar.
”’Mr. Fund is a columnist for OpinionJournal.com.”’