Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, Ave Atque Vale

The wire services are reporting that Milton Friedman has died. One way of judging the career of a trafficker and ideas is how much influence he has had on the broader public conversation. And Friedman, who after all had as academic credentials a Nobel Prize for his work on monetary theory, did that in spades. At the height of his influence he wrote frequent columns in Newsweek advocating the virtues of smaller government in ways that were very persuasive to some of the readers of that magazine. And his two monumental public-intellectual books, Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose (the latter co-authored with his wife Rose), are still in print and have had a huge influence in turning many people toward classical liberal thought. (For a very brief flavor of his thought, go here.)

He was both bold and effective in using the credibility won by his intellectual achievements to help him in the broader marketplace of ideas. And he was consistent, advocating freedom not just for the businessman but for all humans in all arenas. He is not as well-known as he should be for his role in ending conscription in the US. In the late 1960s he was a member of a commission studying whether or not to end the draft. According to a presentation I saw at a conference, a military officer (I want to say General Westmoreland, but I would not swear to that) scornfully dismissed the idea of a volunteer military, saying (roughly) that he didn't want an army of mercenaries. To which Friedman responded, again to paraphrase, “So you'd prefer an army of slaves?” And when he was talking to the broader public, he always did it with a smile on his face -- freedom was not simply a flawed system whose only virtue was that it was less worse than all the others; it was a positive means to help people live the lives they wished to live. (This was in stark contrast to some of the controversies in which he was involved in the scholarly economic literature. Some of the controversies between him and Orthodox Keynesians like James Tobin were expressed in, by the language of academic journals, surprisingly bitter and sarcastic language. I remember, a professor in graduate school, himself of the Keynesian persuasion, titling a unit on his syllabus "The Monetarist Controversy." It was obvious to me that it was really more properly titled "The Keynesian Controversy.") His willingness and ability to wield his ideas in the public square meant that he left the world better than he found it.

When John Kenneth Galbraith died not long ago, the New York Times front-paged his obituary, and it was reverentially written. I have read a lot of his work, and profited by doing so; while most of his ideas have not stood the test of time, they are wittily expressed, and his books are well worth reading. I will be interested to see whether the Times, which serves as a sort of Bible of the chattering classes, gives Milton Friedman the same treatment.


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