Economist Milton Friedman is a dinosaur in the tiger age . . . or a tiger in the dinosaur age. It all depends upon your ideologic/economic perception. In "Free to Choose" (PBS, Friday and 10 successive Fridays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) 1976 Nobel Prize-winner Friedman expounds on his personal philosophy for a half hour and then submits himself to brutal questioning from his peers for another half hour.
It is a stimulating if excruciating adventure in bread-and- butter vs. theoretical economics. Viewers will have to decide for themselves which is which.
Dr. Friedman, currently affiliated with Stanford University, the University of Chicago, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Newsweek magazine, is a firm believer in Adam Smith's theory of the free market as contained in "The Wealth of Nations." In many cases it seems he opposes most economic theories which have evolved since. In this initial program -- "The Power of the Market" -- he revels in what he considers the ideal economic structure of Hong Kong: "Its 4 1/2 million people are a major resource in this haven for people who sought the freedon to make the most of their natural abilities."
In a series of interviews with Hong Kong workers and visits to their sometimes "sweat-shop" working conditions, Dr. Friedman concludes that "we need to rediscover the old truth which immigrants knew in their bones -- what economic freedom is and the role it plays in personal freedom." In Hong Kong workers are "free" to work as many hours as they wish, starting at any age, at whatever pay the going market rate can afford to pay. Yet, the Hong Kong standard of living is one of the highest in Asia. "If they fail," says Dr. Friedman, "they bear the cost. If they succeed, they get the benefit." He calls it a "miracle." Exploitation of workers unable to fend for themselves is almost totally disregarded by Dr. Friedman.
The clearest demonstration of success or failure, says Dr. Friedman, is "the way people vote with their feet when they have no other way to vote." They flee China in order to live and work in hong Kong.
Self-interest is the key to Dr. Friedman's philosphy -- the harm comes, he says, when government intervenes and becomes a do-good villain, interfering with Friedman's concept of personal freedom, which he believes he shares with Thomas Jefferson.
In the half-hour freewheeling discussion after Dr. Friedman's presentation in this premiere segment, fellow scholars argue opposite points of view in the University of Chicago Library. What might be right for one stage of development , may not be right for another, they insist. Socialist Michael Harrington derides "18th-century solutions to modern problems . . . a mythical nonhistorical presentation of an abstract solution taken out of time, which does not take into consideration evolution. . . ."
Concedes Dr. Friedman with good-natured firmness: "I am not an anarchist -- we need government . . . But a government which merely sets a framework within which people can work. . . ."
"Free to Choose," a production of WQLN (Erie, Pa.), plans segments on "The Tyranny of Control," "From Cradle to Grave," etc. So it is possible Dr. Friedman's laissez faire espousal of the cause of free enterprise may yet prove to be redundant, since in the succeeding programs he seems to be a dinosaur (or tiger) who fights the same battles.
But, based upon a viewing of the initial hour, "Free to Choose" is lively, thought-provoking television whether you consider te point-of-view appallingly callous or enthrallingly practical.