Freedom Man

Monday, October 30, 2006

Milton Friedman was one of the very few intellectuals with both genius and common sense. He could express himself at the highest analytical levels to his fellow economists in academic publications and still write popular books such as Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose, that could be understood by people who knew nothing about economics. Indeed, his television series, “Free to Choose,” was readily understandable even by people who don’t read books.

Milton Friedman may well have been the most important economist of the twentieth century, even if John Maynard Keynes was the most famous. No small part of Milton’s achievement was rescuing economics from the pervasive and virtually unquestioned Keynesian orthodoxy that reigned in many places.

Ironically, Milton began his career as a believer in both Keynesian economics and in the liberals’ vision of the world with which it was so compatible. Yet, in the end, no one did more to dethrone both. It is doubtful whether Ronald Reagan could have been elected president in 1980 without the changes in public opinion produced by Milton’s work in the previous decades.

The Keynesians’ belief that government policy could wisely make trade-offs between rates of inflation and rates of unemployment was epitomized in the Phillips Curve, which seemed to lend empirical support to that belief. Milton dealt that analysis a body blow when he argued that it was not the rate of inflation which reduced unemployment but the fact that inflation exceeded expectations.

In other words, even a high rate of inflation would not reduce unemployment if inflationary policies became so common as to be expected. The “stagflation” of the 1970s—with simultaneous double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment—validated what Milton had said, in a way that no one could ignore.

Unlike so many intellectuals who have aspired to positions of power, Milton preferred to remain outside of government and independent of politicians. His influence was nevertheless great because his ideas moved others, whether in the economics profession, in the general public or among policy makers.

Milton’s many contributions to economics, recognized by the Nobel Prize that he received in 1976, were only part of his contributions to society at large. His decades-long campaign to promote school vouchers has been enshrined in the foundation named for him and his wife, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He was a compassionate conservative long before that term was coined, for the rich obviously do not need vouchers to get a decent education for their children.

Milton was a tough, no-nonsense teacher in the classroom but a kind and generous human being outside.

Milton’s own personal background made him familiar with the problems of those who begin life without the privileges of the elite—and of the importance of education as a way to advance beyond their beginnings. Born in Brooklyn in 1912 to immigrant parents, he grew up in New Jersey, living over his family’s store, and worked his way through Rutgers University. Later, he went on to postgraduate work at the University of Chicago. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the central figure in the “Chicago School” of economists, and an outstanding teacher, Milton over the years sent forth into the world—overseas as well as in the U.S.—a stream of economists who influenced the thinking, and in some cases the policies, of countries all around the world. These students, along with his writings, are part of his enduring legacy. His popular writings, speeches and television appearances spread his ideas through successively wider circles of people, who passed these ideas on to others, many of whom may never have known where these ideas originated.

As one of those privileged to have studied under Milton, I felt a special loss at his death but also a sense of good fortune to have learned from him, not only when I was at the University of Chicago but also in the years and decades since then. He was a tough, no-nonsense teacher in the classroom but a kind and generous human being outside.

Ronald Reagan probably could not have been elected president in 1980 without the changes in public opinion produced by Milton’s work in the previous decades.

Students were not allowed to walk into his classroom after his lecture had begun, distracting others. Once, I arrived at the door just minutes after Milton began speaking and had to turn around and go back to the dormitory, wondering all the while whether what he taught that day would be on the next exam. After that, I was always in my seat when he entered the classroom. He was also a tough grader. On one exam, there were only two B’s in the whole class—and no A’s.

The other side of Milton was his generosity with his time to help students, and even former students. In later years, long after I had left the University of Chicago, he helped me with his criticisms and advice on my work—only when asked. When I was offered an appointment to the Federal Trade Commission in 1976, he was asked by the White House to urge me to accept but he declined to do so. It was the best non-advice I ever got. I would have been miserable at the FTC.

Although in recent years we were both members of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, we each lived miles away and neither of us was physically present there with any great frequency, so the chance that we would both be there on the same day was virtually nil. The last time I saw Milton in person was in 2004, when we were jointly interviewed on television. Afterwards, he gave me a ride in his little sports car over to the Stanford faculty club, where we joined a group for lunch. Then he drove back to his home in San Francisco, 30 miles away, though he was at the time in his 90s.

More recently, I happened to chat briefly with Milton on the phone a few days before his death, and found his mind to be as clear and sharp as ever. That will always be a special memory of a very special man, one of the giants of our time—intellectually, morally, and as a human being.