Alexandria, VA. — Once in a while, a fresh breeze whisks through the nation's capital, reminding our leaders that it's not big government but freedom that is the genius behind human progress.
And freedom was indeed celebrated here recently when Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman made a rare visit to Washington where he was honored for his extraordinary contributions as the greatest economist of the 20th century.
President Bush hosted a ceremony at the White House to celebrate Professor Friedman's upcoming 90th birthday, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, and others expressing affection and gratitude for his life's work.
"A hero of freedom," President Bush said in his White House tribute — a man who believes in "the free market's invisible hand" and not "the government's invisible foot, which tramples on people's hopes and destroys their dreams."
Ideas do matter. Professor Friedman's vision "has changed America, and it is changing the world," Mr. Bush said.
Professor Friedman worked tirelessly with his wife and collaborator, Rose, to proclaim the ideas that ultimately led to the crumbling of Soviet Communism and the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Think of the student standing before the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and imagine, instead, one man standing against an Army of tanks over decades. That's Milton Friedman.
From his emergence as an intellectual powerhouse for free-market economics in the 1930s until today, Friedman says his "central theme in public advocacy has been the promotion of human freedom."
Chairman Greenspan validated his success: "It is difficult to overstate how important Professor Friedman has been to how democratic free societies function," he said.
"Few live to see the rise and fall of empires, and fewer still live to see their ideas have an impact on the turn of world events," Secretary Rumsfeld observed. "He has changed the course of history" showing the critical link between politics and economic freedom.
"When I talk with our troops around the world, I am talking with the men and women who are defending what you have helped to build," Rumsfeld told his friend and mentor.
Guests at the White House event included the presidents of The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, think-tanks that have devoted themselves to spreading ideas that advance free markets and human freedom.
Then Thursday night, Cato also honored Professor Friedman at its 25th anniversary dinner, with 1,800 people celebrating his and Cato's unwavering devotion to liberty.
The first annual Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty was awarded to development economist Peter Bauer. The sad note of the evening was that Lord Bauer died in London just days before he was to travel to Washington to accept the award.
But his work lives on. Lord Bauer, like Professor Friedman, was instrumental in proving that free-markets, not government programs, hold the key to economic growth in developed and developing economies around the globe.
Professor Friedman, noted for his precision, gave one short analogy at the White House event to convey his philosophy.
"When a man spends his own money to buy something for himself, he is very careful how much he spends and how he spends it.
"When a man spends his own money to buy something for someone else, he is still very careful about how much he spends, but somewhat less what he spends it on," Friedman continued.
"When a man spends someone else's money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about what he buys, but doesn't care at all how much he spends.
"And when a man spends someone else's money on someone else, he doesn't care how much he spends or what he spends it on.
"And that's government for you," he concluded.
In his groundbreaking book, Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, Friedman supports a representative government that puts national defense as its first responsibility and which allows individual creativity to flourish through capitalism and free market economies.
The battles for liberty continue, both here and abroad, as governments become more powerful and are seduced into believing they hold all the answers.
While we are far from winning the battle, this week's glimpse of history shows that continuing to make the case for freedom, day after day, debate after debate, will have results.
And these celebrations were important touchstones to remind us that the battles for freedom and individual dignity will never be won but that we must never stop fighting.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit research organization that focuses on health care economics. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA 22320.