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Timeless values: A Foreword Worth Remembering

October 10, 2023

In a world of change, the fundamental principles of The Northwood Idea are timeless. Under any circumstances, personal freedom and individual responsibility are essential for a free society. So it is illustrative to examine some of the most compelling expressions of The Northwood Idea that great thinkers have contributed through the years. We call them Timeless Values. 

The following excerpt is the foreword of When We Are Free written by famed economist Dr. Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize laureate who, along with his wife, Rose, is very beloved to the Northwood University community. When We Are Free is a collection of essays that each Northwood University student studies to learn the values rooted in The Northwood Idea.

Dr. Friedman’s foreword makes the case that individuals bear intrinsic responsibilities to themselves and to each other, responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled by relinquishing them to external entities or by selecting government representatives who will extract funds from your earnings to allocate toward purportedly virtuous goals. These obligations can only be fulfilled by us as autonomous individuals.

A foreword to remember

For more than 200 years, the central element of anti-capitalist rhetoric has been the claim that capitalism is inhumane. That theme is still the most effective element in the armory of the opponents of a free market. The fascinating thing is that it is completely contradicted by experience. Where have you had inhumanity in its most extreme forms? By now, everyone knows that it has been in those states that have departed farthest from free markets and individual freedom. It has been in the Communist societies, the totalitarian societies, that you have had the real extremes of inhumanity.

Where in the world do ordinary people have the most humane existence, the greatest range of opportunity, the greatest ability to develop their own capacities? The answer is obviously in the capitalist societies, in the free market societies.

We must make people understand that the basic idea of a free society is fundamentally a humane idea. It is fundamentally the idea that people as individuals have responsibilities to themselves and to one another that cannot be met by turning them over to somebody else, by electing government officials who will take money out of your pocket in order to spend it on supposedly good objectives. The responsibilities can only be met by us as individuals. In spreading that basic philosophy, we must go beyond the kind of economic studies that I’ve spent my life on, that even the best public policy think tanks produce. It must go beyond economics. It must go beyond philosophy. It must go to novels, to plays, to music, to the core of our culture.

We must move on a broad front. That cannot be done by business executives in their capacity as representatives of their business, or by elected or appointed government officials.

Only people in their private capacity, not as representatives of their business, but as citizens of the United States, can shape basic values — by our own behavior and by our influence on others. The main effort will have to be fostered and organized through universities and through foundations. It will require the support of the community of businessmen and of other individuals from all walks of life.

The success achieved so far is certainly cause for all of us to be optimistic. The tide of opinion in the world has been changing — and at a pace that has been greatly accelerated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today our side — the side of truth, the side of freedom, the side of individual rights — has a strength and an appeal which 40 years ago one could hardly have imagined. Nonetheless, our task is far from over.

Disillusionment with socialism is not equivalent to an understanding of the true role and function of free private enterprise.

In country after country, the leaders preach free enterprise but simultaneously extend the reach of the state over individual behavior. Rhetoric is one thing; practice a very different thing.

The great task before us is to change practice to conform to rhetoric, and that will not be easy.

Books like When We Are Free contain messages that are timeless yet are especially relevant today when the world is at a turning point. Understanding and spreading these messages can help to assure that the opportunity for a major expansion of human freedom becomes a reality.

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