Milton Friedman: A legendary economist and a champion of liberty
Nobel laureate Milton Friedman did more than live: He sparkled. One of the greatest economists of the 20th century, he also was one of the greatest champions of liberty. He would have turned 95 on Aug. 7.
Economist and author Lanny Ebenstein provides us with a biography of this extraordinary child of Central European immigrants. “Milton Friedman” is more than just one person’s story — it demonstrates how ideas can blossom in one man’s mind and eventually infuse the entire body politic.
Mr. Ebenstein’s research is thorough, though his style lacks Friedman’s energy, the sheer joy of intellectual combat that animated this elfin dynamo. Nevertheless, the work helps us understand what turned a bookish academic into one of America’s great public intellectuals.
Friedman was born in 1912 in Brooklyn and grew up in lean though not difficult circumstances. An avid reader, Friedman demonstrated his leadership qualities and what Mr. Ebenstein terms a “remarkably exuberant personality.”
Friedman was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling in Rutgers in 1928. He shelved his plans to become an actuary and began a lifelong affiliation with the University of Chicago when he joined its master’s programin1932.Hispersonallifealso flourished;inChicagohemetRoseDirector, a graduate student he married in 1938.
At this point longtime friend Allen Wallis described Friedman “as a Norman Thomas-type socialist.” During World War II Friedman assisted the Treasury Department in implementing income tax withholding.
But his perspective soon changed. Friedman’s talents were obvious, as was his ambition. Writes Mr. Ebenstein: “Friedman recalls [economist George] Stigler as fond of saying later, when Friedman became actively involved in politics: ‘Milton wanted to change the world; I only want to understand it.’”
Friedman actively participated in academic affairs and shaped the economic department’s direction. One of his chief causes was “positive economics,” essentially a value-free assessment of what is.
He viewed his contributions to this field as his most important economic achievement, wryly observing that he was “so happily blessed with critics that I have been forced to adopt the general rule of not replying to them.” Actually, he loved debate and never hesitated to mix it up with his opponents, though he preferred to focus on policy rather than methodology.
The 1950s featured Friedman as leading academic. He confronted the specter of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose views regarding market failure came to dominate the economics profession in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
Friedman responded with the doctrine of monetarism, emphasizing the importance of the supply of money to the economy. The issue causes many non-economists’ eyes to glaze over, but Friedman emerged triumphant. Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith concluded that “the age of John Maynard Keynes gave way to the age of Milton Friedman.”
The 1960s launched Friedman as public intellectual. His book “Capitalism and Freedom” became an instant classic, a libertarian paean to freedom in the midst of America’s growing welfare/warfare state. He broke with political orthodoxy, linking free markets, an end to military conscription, school vouchers and drug legalization.
Friedman became Sen. Barry Goldwater’s chief economic adviser in the latter’s ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign. Friedman also became a prolific popular writer, penning a regular column in Newsweek.
He advised foreign governments — most controversially Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, though Friedman pointedly never endorsed the dictatorship. (He noted that his critics never complained when he similarly visited communist officials in Beijing.) His international stature grew even greater with receipt of the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics.
Friedman retired from Chicago but did not slow down. He joined the Hoover Institution (we competed for use of the copying machine while I was a lowly research assistant at Hoover during the 1978-79 academic year).
Friedman advised President Ronald Reagan and co-wrote, with Rose, “Free to Choose” (also made into a television special) and “The Tyranny of the Status Quo.” Friedman worked with think tanks at home and abroad; the Cato Institute inaugurated the Friedman Prize to honor thosewhohavedonemuchtoadvance liberty. The Friedmans created a foundation dedicated to promoting educational choice.
Friedman’s family shared his ideological crusade. Rose, his wife of 68 years, was his close collaborator. His son, David, is a leading libertarian economist. Their views come naturally. Relates Mr. Ebenstein: “Once, when the family was traveling across country by train, Milton gave [daughter] Jan and David the choice of a room with berths or the difference in cash between the price of the room and the price of riding in coach. The children chose to sit up in coach for two days.” Market incentives in action.
Though civil and charming, Friedman was joyously combative. He loved to debate, especially when he was in the minority. Observes Mr. Ebenstein: “when he began to enunciate his views, Friedman was largely considered a heretic, a Rasputin, or a numskull, or some combination of all three.”
No longer. He has stamped his imprint on the all-volunteer military, monetary and exchange rate policies and educational and tax reform. Even his critics acknowledge that Friedman has framed much of today’s intellectual debate.
Seldom do people change the world around them for the better. Milton Friedman is one such person. Lanny Ebenstein’s biography reminds us just how much we owe to this exuberant champion of liberty.
Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books.