A Million-Dollar Affair

Saturday, July 30, 2005

This June in New York there was a great money-raising party in honor of Milton and Rose Friedman. Those present were true believers, and Milton Friedman is their Nativity. That is true, in a general sense, because he is the author of definitive studies of the monetary system and is the American fons et origo of libertarian enterprise. He received a Nobel Prize, endowed the University of Chicago and then the Hoover Institution with his afflatus, and promises his disciples to live forever, along with his brilliant and decorative wife, Rose. He has made a flying start on this guarantee; he is 93 years old, and he and Rose have been married for 67 years.

The Friedman Foundation, which was the evening’s beneficiary, is devoted to advancing the prospects of school choice. This very lively movement was born 50 years ago in an essay by Milton Friedman. School choice programs of various kinds are ongoing in several states, briefly described in the literature distributed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel along with the meal (it would have been tempting to write, in lieu of a meal). The beneficiaries of school choice, listed by foundation president Gordon St. Angelo, would include students who use the voucher; students who remain in government schools (which would improve on facing competition); employers (who would find literate graduates applying for jobs); educational entrepreneurs (who would invest in new and innovative schooling); and taxpayers—inasmuch as school choice would bring reduced expenses.

The evening was star-studded. We had a tape of Alan Greenspan, who hailed Friedman’s work even as, later in the evening, Friedman would hail the work of Alan Greenspan. George Shultz was on-screen to name Friedman the single most important human being of our time, a tribute that ended in song. Henry Kissinger was physically present and gave, glowingly, a brief glowing talk about Friedman’s importance as an international symbol.

There came then, moderated by ABC’s John Stossel, questions and answers. Here Milton Friedman says some things that require faith. He compares the performance of Catholic schools and public schools in New York City. The Catholic schools (only half of whose students are Catholic) cost half as much per student as the public schools and send almost twice as many graduates on to college.

Moreover—a point dear to Milton’s heart—the very act of submitting to public schooling tames young spirits to associate public enterprises with correct social enterprise. It is a contaminating experience, he holds—a breeding ground of budget allocations by political bodies, submission to cartels of union-bound teachers, and a spiritual acclimation to a norm that, far from being competitive, encourages the kind of mediocrity that is associated with corporate goals set by remote agencies.

On nothing are the Friedmans more emphatic than that school choice would help poorer students. Competition inevitably encourages quality, and students who are free to opt for alternative schooling would flock to do so, as they have done in experiments in Chicago and Milwaukee and are expected to do in Arizona and Utah. Non-Catholic blacks fight to get their children accepted in Catholic schools in Chicago, where a premium is placed on work and on reading and writing. The principal opponents of change are the same unions that Governor Schwarzenegger is fighting with in California, who are seeking to maintain their hold on the teachers’ victims—the students.

Everything Milton touches has the feel of his optimism, and this event was no exception. Dinner chairman Charles Brunie announced that the dinner had generated $993,000 in contributions. Whereupon a guest raised his hand and said, “Count me in for $7,000,” making it a million-dollar affair.