The Smile of Reason

Monday, October 30, 2006

I’ve always blamed the University of Hawaii women’s volleyball team, though perhaps that’s not fair.

As I was finishing college, I was invited to Stanford with a small group of young people to discuss economics with Milton Friedman for a PBS series called Tyranny of the Status Quo. I was a socialist then and spent several weeks studying left-wing economic doctrine in order to rebut the great man.

On the afternoon of my final cram session, I found a chair by the hotel pool, but as I was mastering the high points of the Swedish regulatory regime, the Hawaii women’s volleyball team settled around me, sunning themselves and cavorting in the water. Distracted for some reason, I did not go on to crush Milton in debate that afternoon.

The show consisted of me making some left-wing argument, Milton demolishing it in roughly six to eight words, and then me sitting there with my mouth agape trying to think of what to say.

That night Milton and his wife, Rose, took us out to dinner, and Milton pushed aside his plate of sweetbreads (which appalled me) and smilingly, clearly and engagingly, gave me a lesson in free market economics.

They say Voltaire glowed with the smile of reason, and Milton did too. And although I never became a libertarian as he was, the encounter was one of the turning points in my life. It opened new ways of seeing the world and was an exhilarating demonstration of the power of ideas.

I don’t care what you think of his philosophy, Milton Friedman’s trek from the intellectual wilderness to global influence is one of the most exhilarating exodus stories of our time. The man who was once scorned as a free market crank ended up delivering rapturously attended lectures in China.

They say Voltaire glowed with the smile of reason, and Milton did too.

He was proudest of his contributions to technical economics, but he also possessed that rarest of gifts, a practical imagination, and was a fountain of concrete policy ideas. During World War II, he helped draw up plans to withhold people’s income tax and then worked with mathematicians like Jack Wolfowitz (Paul’s father) to calculate how many pieces artillery shells should burst into to produce maximum damage.

In the ensuing years, he developed ideas like the volunteer army, the negative income tax (which evolved into the earned income tax credit), post office deregulation (which gave us FedEx), the flat tax, and floating exchange rates.

He promoted these ideas with relentless clarity and brevity. In the mid-1980s I had a fellowship at the Hoover Institution, and I used to listen to the economists around Milton as they talked over coffee. One afternoon I foolishly tried to make a point, and one of the other economists stomped on me with a long, jargon-filled lecture. When he asked me to respond, my face turned red and I finally blurted out, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand what you said.” Milton roared with approving laughter. He believed in clear language and, as Samuel Brittan has noted, preferred the spoken to the written word.

His passing is sad for many reasons. One is that from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, U.S. political life was shaped by a series of landmark books: Witness, The Vital Center, Capitalism and Freedom, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Losing Ground, The Closing of the American Mind. Then, in the 1990s, those big books stopped coming. Now, instead of books, we have blogs.

The big books stopped coming partly because the distinction between intellectual movements and political parties broke down. Milton was never interested in partisan politics but was deeply engaged in policy. Today, team loyalty has taken over the wonk’s world, so invisible boundaries mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought.

Milton’s trek from the intellectual wilderness to global influence is one of the most exhilarating exodus stories of our time.

His death is sad, too, because classical economics is under its greatest threat in a generation. Growing evidence suggests average workers are not seeing the benefits of their productivity gains—that the market is broken and requires heavy government correction. Milton’s heirs have been avoiding this debate. They’re losing it badly and have offered no concrete remedies to address this problem, if it is one.

I saw Milton a few times over the past decade, and he would always bring up school vouchers, his unrealized idea. He still brimmed with his faith—which must have been there when he was a young boy—in average people, making their own decisions, running their own lives, and doing it pretty well.

About the Author

More from Hoover Digest

More from Government Regulation