Think Freely Media presents Common Sense with Paul Jacob

Free to Choose

Milton Friedman, democracy, initiative, referendum, Free to Choose, public interest,

“I think that the most effective way one could possibly move toward greater freedom in the United States, toward a smaller role of government, would be if we could only have a more democratic society.”

Who said that? A Democrat?


The speaker quickly added, “I don’t mean a capital-D, I mean a small-d.”

“That is, I mean if we could have referenda,” the late Milton Friedman explained back in 1987.

The Nobel Prize winning economist — and co-author with wife Rose of the bestselling Free to Choose* — was referring to the initiative and referendum process, whereby citizens vote on laws, and in the case of initiatives directly place measures onto the ballot.

Citizens enjoy initiative and referendum rights in twenty-four states and roughly 60 percent of cities throughout the country.

“The public at large has always shown itself,” Dr. Friedman observed, correcting himself, “has almost always shown itself to be more libertarian in its views than have their elected representatives.”**

Friedman was not suggesting that a bad law becomes good because it was passed at the ballot box. He simply weighed the odds between two distinct sets of voters. Legislators are a small group, the personal power of each one so closely tied to government that politicians’ personal interests often compete against the public’s. Conversely, the much larger group of voting citizens almost defines the public interest.

Perhaps I was channeling the great doctor of economics when I was once asked, “Do you trust the people?”

My reply?

“No. But I trust the people a whole lot more than I trust the politicians.”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul of Jacob.


* The book was first published in January 1980, in tandem with PBS’s airing of the popular “Free to Choose” series.

** He spoke this at a California Libertarian Party conference. Tough crowd.

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By: CS Admin


  1. John F Brennan says:

    Free to Choose should be mandatory reading and viewing in order to graduate high school. 
    As for trust, I trust the people exponentially more than politicians, but only with a very closely and constitutionally limited government.  Tyranny by the majority is real as well and when the population understands that it, without limitation, controls the treasury it is over!

  2. Pat says:

    The problem is what to do with the judges.   They are appointed to their positions by the executive and confirmed by the legislative branch.    In the end the government will get its way, no matter what we the people say or how we vote.   They’ve done it before.   Judges have overturned laws passed at the ballot box and citizens have no recourse.   In the end, it’s all a game to make us believe we have a government of the people.

    • JFB says:

      Control of the government, no matter what its form, has always been the issue. It is because it is so difficult, and commonly lost, that human history as related presently is mostly the recitation of governmental formations, expansions, aggressions (against their citizens, other countries or both), and failures.
      It thankfully is mankind, productivity, and commerce which have, thus far, survived and improved regardless of the ups and downs of countries and empires. Whether that will continue to be true in a nuclear age of continental governments is being tested presently.
      As for judges, they are indeed one of the problems as they are of the government and therefore bastardize interpretation of intended governmental limitations to allow its expansion, and therefore eventually its failure.

  3. Paul Jacob says:

    John — Well said. Individual rights must be respected. I think voters will guard the treasury better than pols. So far they seem to have done so in the real world comparing initiative states against non-initiative states. Even in CA, where the initiative is blamed for overspending, a whopping 82 percent of ballot measures to increase spending were placed on the ballot by legislators — not citizen petition.

    Pat — Judges seem to be more aggressive in overturning citizen initiatives than they are with legislative enactments. They generally give deference to the legislature when possible. But we can oftentimes overcome bad court decisions: we can change the law. (I know, and agree, it truly won’t solve all the issue you raise.)

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