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Friday, October 30, 2020 Leer en Español

‘Free to Choose’: 10 of the Best Moments Ever

Bob Chitester saw that the great economist Milton Friedman was not just another distinguished intellectual. With his rapier wit, warm charm, and economic brilliance, Friedman had the makings of potential TV star and evangelist of liberty.

Image Credit: PBS

In 1977, Bob Chitester decided to try something bold.

A long time owner and general manager of a pair of public broadcasters in Erie, Pennsylvania—the NPR station WQLN-FM and the PBS channel WQLN-TV—Chitester decided he wanted to create something different.

So he persuaded the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, along with his wife Rose, to launch a film project that became one of the most popular economic shows in history: Free To Choose.

The one-hour TV program debuted in January 1980 in conjunction with the release of Friedman’s book (also titled Free to Choose). Airing on PBS, the series featured Friedman in various locations around the world as he asked important questions about markets, liberty, and economics.

What is the purpose of markets and how do they work?

Why was socialism failing in countries around the world?

Can governments grow economies?

Why did the United States became the richest and freest country in the world while so many other suffered from backward economies despite an abundance of natural resources?

While the program made Friedman one of the most prominent public intellectuals of his day and raised the profiles of many other accomplished economists, including Thomas Sowell, many have pointed out that it was Chitester’s vision that was the true genesis of the program.

“Bob Chitester saw that Milton Friedman was not merely a distinguished intellectual, but a potential television star,” said Dr. Frederic J. Fransen, Founder of Certell and a FEE trustee, after Chitester was honored with the Blinking Lights Award in 2016. “Bob always thinks big. He is not satisfied with polishing one blinking light if the landscape is dark, but rather seeks to illuminate the globe with the stories of freedom. His impact cannot be overstated.”

In honor of Bob Chitester and his contributions to freedom, here are 10 of the best moments of Free to Choose in the program’s history.

1. ‘I, Pencil’ and the Power of Markets

Friedman discusses Leonard Read’s classic work “I, Pencil” which demonstrates how one of the simplest devices around us—a mere pencil—reveals the miraculous power of the market.

2. Friedman on Regulation

Friedman discusses the growth of regulation using the Chevrolet Corvair as an example. He offers a stunning visual to make a memorable point.

3. ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch’

Friedman tackles the fallacy that government policies can offer the public benefits without sacrifice.

4. Friedman on Wealth Redistribution

In a Q&A with guests, an audience member suggests redistributing wealth with an inheritance tax. Friedman explains how such policies distort incentives.

5. Friedman and Walter Williams Discuss Labor Unions

Friedman and fellow great economist Walter Williams take part in a debate over whether government-backed labor unions help or harm the economy.

6. Friedman Discusses the Best Way to Lift People out of Poverty

Friedman explains why capitalism is better than government at lifting people out of poverty.

7. Friedman Compares China & Hong Kong

At the China-Hong Kong border crossing, Friedman talks about how people tend to “vote with their feet” for economic freedom.

8. Friedman on the Growth of Government Following the Great Depression

Friedman explains how the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression and paved the way for future economic instability.

9. Friedman Discusses the Ideal of Equality

Friedman discusses the evolution of the idea of equality throughout the 20th century.

10. Retrospective on ‘Free to Choose’

This clip takes a retrospective look at Free to Choose and includes commentary by Friedman on both the series and executive producer Bob Chitester.

Bonus: Four Ways to Spend Money

Although not from the original TV series, Friedman speaks here later in life about the four ways a person can spend money and how we think differently about each.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.
  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

  • Richard N. Lorenc is Chief Growth Officer of Iron Light, an award-winning strategic marketing firm specializing in helping purpose-driven brands change the world. He served at FEE from April 2013-November 2021, most recently as FEE's Executive Vice President.