Posted: 5/13/2002 9:15:55 PM EDT
The Wall Street Journal
May 14, 2002
A Toast to Liberty
By CLAUDIA ROSETT
WASHINGTON -- Rarely does one get to a black-tie dinner more festive, inspiring and -- yes -- humorous than the libertarian Cato Institute's 25th anniversary gala, held here last Thursday. That might sound odd, because there was a sad note to the occasion, at which Cato inaugurated a major new award: the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. The first winner, development economist Lord Peter Bauer, planned to travel from England for the ceremony. He never made it. On May 2, a week before the festivities, he died, at the age of 86.
But the upbeat mood was a fitting tribute to the sprightly professor from the London School of Economics, who made it his life's work to promote ideas basic to the pursuit of happiness. Lord Bauer was one of the past century's great champions of human dignity and freedom, arguing that this was the way to wealth -- especially for the poorest people of the developing world. He argued for trade, not aid. He insisted that the real answer to poverty lies not in subsidies or state planning, but in giving people the freedom to choose how to spend their own energy and resources. He looked at the evidence and made the case that population growth could be an asset, not a liability.
For such ideas, Cato honored Lord Bauer with the Friedman Prize, which is to be given out every two years, and includes an award of $500,000. Conceptually, it is a prize that could become even more important than the Nobel, which honors achievements in such fields as economics, literature and peace. This is a prize for advancing the cause of liberty. As David Boaz, Cato's executive vice president, pointed out, "Liberty makes possible all the wonderful achievements celebrated in lots of other awards."
That's just part of the story, however. When Lord Bauer began speaking up, more than half a century ago, his ideas were hugely unpopular. He was ignored by many, derided by some. He stood by his principles. He went on amassing evidence, and over the decades, as results came rolling in -- with such successes as the free-market Asian tiger economies, and such failures as the centrally planned Soviet Union and its satellites -- Lord Bauer's views on development finally began to prevail.
In practice, the world is still a messy place, with far to go. But in principle, Lord Bauer and his free-market cohorts set an agenda that today provides at least a fighting chance for genuine global prosperity and peace. Lord Bauer not only bequeathed us much wisdom. He also set a moving example of the power of moral courage.
Many of the 1,800 people who came to drink, dine, and dance here last week were also leaders who had spent their time in the intellectual wilderness and have now arrived as the important thinkers of our time. At one table of dignitaries, the Nobel laureate and free-market economist Gary Becker noted: "Twenty-five years ago it would have been hard to believe that free-market ideas could triumph so much." Nearby, another Nobel laureate, James Buchanan, observed, "We're not the back of the bus anymore."
Cato itself shows how free-market ideas have become widely accepted. The laissez-faire shop that president Ed Crane helped found 25 years ago on a shoestring has become a distinct voice in the national -- and even global -- policy debate. Kicking off the ceremonies, Mr. Crane joked that at Washington dinners there are usually too many dignitaries to be named. So he asked simply for "all the famous people to please stand up." With a big smile, free-market economist Walter Williams stood.
Amid the laughter and applause, many there were seriously honoring Mr. Williams -- not only for his sense of humor, but for his courage. Along with Thomas Sowell, Mr. Williams was one of the first black intellectuals who years ago chose to turn against conventional thinking and promote the invisible hand, not welfare, as the way to a better life for all, blacks included.
But perhaps the crowning appearance was by the man for whom the evening's prize was named. Milton Friedman, fresh from a ceremony at the White House earlier in the day, at which President Bush -- flanked by Friedman admirers like Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- celebrated Mr. Friedman's imminent 90th birthday and praised him as "a hero of freedom." At the dinner, Mr. Friedman cut to the chase: "I would not have thought it possible 25 years ago that Ed Crane could withstand the corrupting influence of Washington," he said. "We've moved from an era of galloping socialism to an era of creeping socialism," he continued, but what we now need is an era of "declining socialism."
It wasn't all serious fare. P.J. O'Rourke began his speech by revealing that he'd been asked to keep the remarks upbeat. No dice. "Upbeat's for those sissy do-gooder organizations like Brookings and the U.N." As libertarians, "we're not here to do good. We're here to do anything we damn well please -- and take the consequences."
Mr. O'Rourke offered a ringing statement of the libertarian creed: "Libertarians don't expect miracles from individuals. We just expect individuals to be individuals, with the limited scope for evil that individuals enjoy." And he concluded with a corollary: "The ugliest strip-mall shopping development is better than the most beautiful gulag." (Well, actually, he concluded on a more upbeat note by suggesting that "we all get drunk." But that's an individual preference, not a libertarian requirement.)
Afterward there was dancing to a live band, playing such numbers as the Beatles' spoof on left-wing radicalism: "Revolution." I think Lord Bauer would have loved it.
Ms. Rosett is a member of the Journal's editorial board.