Most of the articles on Milton Friedman point to his super-sharp intellect and his advocacy of small-government. The latter puts him on the same side as economic conservatives who defend free markets against meddling by government; at times, it also puts him on the side of social liberals on, for example, drugs. Since it's his defence of free markets that kept him in the limelight, he is seen, rightly, as a conservative.
But there's also another facet to this man's work that, frankly, I became aware of through the recent spate of articles on Friedman. It's his ideas on "negative income tax", which is now implemented in a narrower sense in the US as 'earned income credit'. Quite a few obituaries did mention his advocacy of this measure, but only in passing. Robert Frank has chosen to build his entire NYTimes column on this part of Friedman's work:
Market forces can accomplish wonderful things, [Milton Friedman] realized, but they cannot ensure a distribution of income that enables all citizens to meet basic economic needs. His proposal, which he called the negative income tax, was to replace the multiplicity of existing welfare programs with a single cash transfer — say, $6,000 — to every citizen. A family of four with no market income would thus receive an annual payment from the I.R.S. of $24,000. For each dollar the family then earned, this payment would be reduced by some fraction — perhaps 50 percent. A family of four earning $12,000 a year, for example, would receive a net supplement of $18,000 (the initial $24,000 less the $6,000 tax on its earnings).
Mr. Friedman’s proposal was undoubtedly motivated in part by his concern for the welfare of the least fortunate. But he was above all a pragmatist, and he emphasized the superiority of the negative income tax over conventional welfare programs on purely practical grounds. If the main problem of the poor is that they have too little money, he reasoned, the simplest and cheapest solution is to give them some more. He saw no advantage in hiring armies of bureaucrats to dispense food stamps, energy stamps, day care stamps and rent subsidies. [Or, we might add, cows and buffaloes!]
Do read Frank's article; it has several other interesting ideas as well.