I first saw Milton Friedman when he delivered a lecture, probably in 1977, at Stanford University, where I was attending law school. It was lucid and compelling, but controversial: the campus lefties were out in force, upset that he had offered policy advice to the Pinochet government in Chile. (He never endorsed dictatorship, of course — unlike those who celebrated Castro and Mao while criticizing Pinochet. Indeed, no one protested when he later advised the People’s Republic of China.) Leftists quickly lined up when he stopped for questions. One fellow proudly announced that “I’ve read your book page by page,” and issued a typically muddled philosophical challenge. Friedman responded: “You might have read my book page by page, but you didn’t read it line by line.”
The factual refutation that followed really wasn’t necessary: Friedman had turned yet another socialist into intellectual roadkill. Friedman was good, very good, at this sort of give-and-take, and obviously enjoyed it. What made him special, though, was that he liked to discuss ideas as much as to eviscerate his opponents. He wanted to persuade people to believe in liberty. The reason he sought to dismantle those advocating one form of statism or another was not to win debating points, but to convince listeners not to follow an economic path which had failed — indeed, disastrously failed - -so many other countries.
His biographical details have been recounted in great detail elsewhere. He was born to immigrants from Eastern Europe living in Brooklyn. After his father’s death he worked his way through college. He met his eventual wife, Rose Director, at the University of Chicago. She became his intellectual as well as life partner.
Friedman was a brilliant academic theorist who won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on monetarism, which focuses on the role of the money supply in shaping the economy — output, employment, growth, and inflation. His work helped overturn Keynesian economics and elevated him to the pantheon of economic giants.
He didn’t stop there, however. His intellectual interests were legion and he spurred the work of others. Observes Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, Friedman’s “manner of research, his personality, even the topics he studied spawned a great deal of the economics we know today — even among economists whose politics differ greatly from his. A striking number of topics he worked on, for example, ultimately developed into other people’s Nobel awards.”
Friedman also helped turn the University of Chicago’s economics department into a world-class program. Observes Goolsbee, “Chicago remains a place with an intensity without precedent in the world of economics, where we seem to eat, drink and breathe economics, and Mr. Friedman’s personality has much to do with that.”
That normally would be enough of a legacy for any one person, but Friedman was more than a theoretician. Indeed, he may have gotten his greatest joy from his more polemical popular work. In this way he hoped to influence citizens and politicians alike. His classic Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, broke the calcified mold of American politics: For Friedman, liberty was a matter of moral principle as well as economic efficiency. He opposed rent control and conscription; he backed free trade and school vouchers. When he talked about liberty, he meant liberty in all spheres, attacking occupational licensure for protecting professionals from competition and advocating legalization for drugs for adults. He recognized that “war is a friend of the state” and opposed both the first and second Iraq wars.
Friedman was indefatigable, even at 94. Over the years he promoted his views with a regular column in Newsweek, a book entitled Free to Choose and a PBS series by the same name, policy advice to the newly free countries in the former Soviet bloc, visits to China to push liberalization, work with several leading free market think tanks (Cato in the U.S. and Fraser in Canada, for instance), and establishment of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, devoted to educational free choice. Perhaps his signal public policy achievement was serving on a presidential manpower commission under President Richard Nixon and helping move the U.S. from conscription to the All-Volunteer Force. This was one of the greatest advances, if not the greatest advance, of liberty in the last half century in America. (The AVF also has proved to be a better, more effective military.)
Although Friedman seemed almost alone when he began to write for the public, the world has moved his way. In the 1960s the welfare state was on the march. Young men were conscripted. The Cold War raged. Lawyers fixed fees and banned advertising. Education was seen as a bedrock government responsibility. Politicians expected to spend us to prosperity. Statism seemed to be the future — whether as in the softer Scandinavian social democracies or the harsher Communist people’s democracies.
No longer. Many people fought to change the reigning political zeitgeist, but few were as effective as Milton Friedman. If shrinking government now seems to be the obvious strategy for promoting economic growth, protecting individual freedom, and pursuing human happiness, it is obvious in large part because Friedman told us it was — again and again.
There may be no more important or satisfying affirmation of his influence than his impact on Communist lands before the enslaved populations won their freedom. Writes Lawrence H. Summers, a talented economist as well as former Treasury Secretary and Harvard University president: “Ask reformers in any one of the countries behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain where they learned to contemplate alternatives to communism during the closed era before the Berlin Wall fell and they will often tell you about reading Milton Friedman and realizing how different their world could be.” (Other modern liberals who also laud Friedman include former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and London Mayor Ken Livingstone.)
Yet despite all of the acclaim, Friedman remained warm, friendly, funny, and ever ready to engage anyone interested in ideas. It didn’t matter if he’d heard the same question one, ten, or a hundred times before. He patiently but thoroughly (though at times sharply) made the case for liberty. In 1988 he participated in a conference on national service at the Hoover Institution, where he was in residence. Without doubt, he was the forum’s star, but he presented his views and took questions just like everyone else.
And not all of his life was politics. At the center was his long and loving marriage to Rose. They had two children, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He and Rose authored a joint autobiography entitled Two Lucky People.
Indeed, my mental image of Friedman is not of him lecturing to a large crowd or holding forth at a conference. I was a research assistant for another Hoover Institution scholar in my last year of law school. When I was copying articles Friedman’s head would periodically appear, peeking into the room to see if I was still hogging the copy machine. He never attempted to push in front of me, never asked me if I knew who he was. Rather, there was a brief impish grin, and then nothing, as he darted back to his office. I was awed by his presence but even more impressed by his absence — his patient willingness to come back later, like anyone else.
Milton Friedman is a giant, one the few intellectuals to become an iconic public figure. A symbol on both the right and left, he resolutely stood for the proposition that liberty was the most important political objective. Either his academic production or his popular work would have sufficed as a fulfilling career for most of us. But he combined both — simultaneously being a great economist and a wonderful polemicist. He will be sorely missed by anyone dedicated to protecting the life, liberty, and dignity of every individual, wherever and however they live.
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