Mil­ton Fried­man: A leg­endary econ­o­mist and a cham­pion of lib­erty

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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