It is rare when great intellectual and policy achievements are combined with great personal decency, warmth, charm and unfailing consideration toward others.
Milton Friedman, who died last week at age 94, combined all those characteristics and more. He was a great friend of freedom, an untiring champion of liberty, and he will be sorely missed.
“I never heard him say a bad word about anyone,” said Martin Anderson, who was President Reagan’s chief domestic policy adviser and a colleague of Friedman’s at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for many years.
This is remarkable in that his life’s work was championing free-market economic theories and policies in what was often a hostile intellectual environment that featured invidious personal attacks on him.
Academic politics can be a nasty blood sport, but Milton Friedman somehow rose above it and prevailed, through intellectual rigor and personal decency.
He was born in 1912 in Brooklyn, the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine. During his childhood, as he wrote in an autobiography for the Nobel Prize Committee, “financial crisis was a constant companion. Yet there was always enough to eat, and the family atmosphere was warm and supportive.”
His father died during his senior year of high school, and though his mother always assumed he would go to college, he would have to finance it himself. He won a competitive scholarship to Rutgers University.
Yet it is the University of Chicago, where he took his M.A. and where he taught from 1946 through 1977, with which Milton Friedman will be forever associated. He was the acknowledged leader of the “Chicago School” of economics, which has produced other Nobel winners, including George Stigler and Gary Becker. The Chicagoans went against the then-prevailing tide of Keynesian economics, arguing for freer markets and that the supply of money was the chief determinant of economic growth and inflation, and that the Federal Reserve should have a fixed policy rather than trying to “fine-tune” the economy as Keynesians preferred.
Academic works like “Monetary History of the United States” and ”A Theory of the Consumption Function” cemented his reputation as a scholar. In 1962 he wrote “Capitalism and Freedom” for a more popular audience, in which he argued for a market virtually unfettered by government regulation as the most effective means to move toward a prosperous and humane society. In it he argued against government licensing of doctors and other professionals, for a volunteer army, a negative income tax and education vouchers.
Milton Friedman worked on a commission that eventually led to the abolition of the military draft and was an adviser to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful campaign for president, to President Nixon, and later to President Reagan.
He wrote a regular column for Newsweek from 1966 to 1983. In 1980, “Free to Choose,” the book he wrote with his wonderful wife Rose, based on the PBS series of the same name, was the best selling non-fiction book of the year. In 1996 he and his wife published their joint memoir, “Two Lucky People.” They have established the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation to continue advocating for school vouchers.
Perhaps Milton Friedman was blessed with luck. He was also blessed with a first-rate mind, a capacity for hard work, and a determination to work toward truth. His discipline was economics, and Martin Anderson said he was probably “the most influential and consequential economist since Adam Smith.” His passion, however, was liberty, and he used his great gifts tirelessly to advance that great cause, which is proven time and again to be a better way for human beings to live yet is forever in peril.
Farewell to a civil warrior in the noblest human cause of all.