Anyone who lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 will remember the pitiable figure cut by the Eastern Bloc residents interviewed back then. They looked stunned, tongue-tied, disoriented, like rescuees emerging into the sunlight after days in a collapsed mine. Whether they were philosophers, firemen, or housewives, how inconsequential appeared the lives they had spent “building communism.” The vision of Karl Marx—only lately passed off as a magical combination of charity, machismo, and economic rationality—now looked mediocre and servile.
Our own economic ideology, though—well, that was another story! People were beginning to place free markets at the heart of Western civilization, in terms once reserved for Christianity or universal manhood suffrage. “Capitalism,” for perhaps the only time in its history, seemed synonymous with “freedom.”
Who was the author of this vision? A lot of people, but most prominent was the cantankerous and combative economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006). For a generation after the inflation of the 1970s, and thus in the triumphal decades when the United States was laying down the rules of the post–Cold War order, Friedman was the main spokesman for, and symbol of, the idea that free markets and free societies were basically the same thing.