Friedmans: the case for free choice; Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, by Milton and Rose Friedman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $9.95

The Friedmans now stand among the distinguished bunch -- Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, Alistair Cooke, John Kenneth Galbraith -- who have distilled a life's thought into a PBS television series, which has then been adapted to book form. Potently condensing so much into so little must be a formidable task, and so far it has wisely been reserved to thinkers of great big thoughts who are viewing things from somewhere near the end of a long career. Like the other members of their small club, Milton Friedman, the Nobel-laureate economist, and his wife, Rose, have pulled it off -- but in a different way from the rest, and with a different purpose.

"Free to Choose" is not beautifully written. It lacks the easy British elegance of Cooke, Clark, and Bronowski, and it must be to the Friedmans' abiding distress that no one writes about economics more fetchingly than Professor Galbraith. Rather, their prose is short, fast, and functional, like the news columns of a daily paper.

Nor is this a stroll through the authors' musings on their discipline, like the other books in this small category. It is an unabashed polemic. The Friedmans come out swinging on Page 1 of the preface and do not let up until the last page of Appendix B.

And in case anyone doesn't know what it is that the Friedmans so passionately believe, it is simply this: that free-market capitalism is the answer. They wouldn't object to that as an oversimplification. They are convinced, after 30 or 40 years of study, that when individual self-interest is allowed to go its own way in a free market, it solves not only economic problems, but also political ones -- education, consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection; and that when the government lays its leaden hand on the wondrously subtle and complex free market, except in a few specific cases it hopelessly bollixes the whole system.

Now this idea is only about 200 years old, having come down to us from Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776, as we are reminded in nearly every chapter. Milton Friedman himself has been propounding it for about three decades. So what is new here? Only this: that he and his wife have finally brought their most important arguments together, condensed them, organized them into a powerful whole, expressed them for the reader who has no formal schooling in economics, and illustrated them with present-day examples.

The Friedmans are at their best and most clear-eyed when at their most indignant. For example, on the energy crisis: "Why is it that for a century and more before 1971, there were no energy crises, no gasoline shortages, no problems about fuel oil -- except during World War II? There has been an energy crisis because government created one." It created the crisis, they say, by imposing maximum prices on oil that were below the market prices that would otherwise have prevailed, just as in World War II, and they are undoubtedly correct. Their solution, to eliminate all oil price controls, would end the shortages "tomorrow -- and we mean tomorrow and not six months from now, not six years from now."

But beyond the specific economic points, or rather standing in support beneath each one, is their conviction that unfettered self-interest ought to be our touchstone. It has always been the governing force in areas such as languages and scientific study, they note.It is not "myopic selfishness," but "whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue." Ultimately, nothing in the book is more fundamental to the Friedmans' case -- or more worthy of our long consideration -- than this contention: that self-interest is a noble force, that its influence ought to be set free.

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