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Milton Friedman RIP

Mises Daily: Thursday, November 16, 2006 by

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Milton Friedman died today at age 94. May he rest in peace.

I don't want to discuss the Reagan and Thatcher "revolutions" he supposedly inspired. Nor his "Free to Choose" series, his many years with the University of Chicago and the Hoover Institution, or his Nobel Prize in Economics. These will be covered, I expect, by others, and in great detail. Nor in this recollection do I want to touch upon his monetarism, his championing of school vouchers, the negative income tax, flexible exchange rates, anti-trust laws, his opposition to the gold standard and to privatizing roads and oceans. Libertarians have long disagreed with him on these issues, and this is not the time to delve into such longstanding controversies.

Instead, I wish to focus on the positive, and to relate a few personal experiences I have had with him. I shall end with a joke that gives a taste of the kind of embattled professional life he led.

Here's the positive. Milton was a beacon of light on issues such as the minimum wage law, free trade, and rent control. This might not seem like much to radical libertarians, but, what with the Democrats recently seizing more power, and promising to impose wage levels on those who can least afford them, the unskilled poor, and with hundreds of economists signing a petition in support of this truly vicious and pernicious legislation, Milton's valiant, witty, wise, eloquent and yes, I'll say it, inspirational analysis on this issue must stand out as an example to us all.

Another of the high points of his career, for me, was his "Open Letter" to then drug czar Bill Bennett" (Wall Street Journal, September 7, 1989) in which he alienated many of his conservative followers with his clarion call for drug legalization. The US government has truly unleashed the whirlwind on this matter. It is responsible for untold incarcerations of innocent people and tens of thousands of needless deaths around the world. When one day we as a society come to our senses and repeal drug prohibition as we previously did for alcohol prohibition, we will owe that happy day to Professor Friedman as much as to any man.

My favorite essay in his Capitalism and Freedom is chapter 9, where Milton rips into the AMA for its policies of restrictive entry into the field of medicine. With the Democrats taking over both houses of congress, and with that harridan Hillary the front runner for its presidential ticket in 2008, we will likely face some mighty battles against the imposition of fully socialized medicine. Thanks to this insightful analysis of Milton's, we will not be without intellectual ammunition in this regard.

Here's the personal. The honor once befell me in the 1980s to serve as Milton Friedman's chauffeur. I drove him around Vancouver, British Columbia during the day of one of his speaking engagements there that evening. The trip was part tourist and part business: pick up at the airport, lunch, a few radio and television interviews during the day, setting up the podium for his evening's speech, etc. I was amazed and delighted at his pugnaciousness in defense of liberty. He would engage seemingly everyone in debate on libertarian issues: waitresses, cameramen, the person placing the microphone on his lapel. He was tireless, humorous, enthusiastic.

Another vignette. He once made a statement at a meeting of the American Economic Association that made me very proud indeed to be an economist. He stated (this is a paraphrase from memory) as follows: "Thanks to economists, all of us, from the days of Adam Smith and before right down to the present, tariffs are perhaps one tenth of one percent lower than they otherwise would have been." Dramatic pause goes here. A very long pause. He then continued: "And because of our efforts, we have earned our salaries ten-thousand fold." What could put matters in better perspective?

Another personal recollection. Once, at a Mont Pelerin Meeting, there was a panel discussion entitled "How to win a Nobel Prize in economics." The panelists were James Buchanan, George Stigler, and, of course, Milton Friedman. This was pretty fast company. I don't remember any of the specifics but I remember coming away from that event with the thought that "Milton Friedman is an intellectual tiger," so overwhelming was he in that discussion.

Speaking of overwhelming, I once had the experience of leading a Liberty Fund Colloquium where we discussed empirical measures of economic freedom. I won't mention all the sixteen or so participants, all of whom were powerful speakers, witty, highly articulate and knowledgeable. But I'll mention this: aside from Milton Friedman, there was his wife Rose and their son David.

Leave the market alone

As can be expected, it was difficult apportioning scarce time amongst so many top theorists on this issue; a hard and fast rule in such events is that only one person could speak at a time. Anyone who knows them knows that Milton, Rose, and David would have dominated our deliberations. Things came to such a pass that I remember screaming out, perhaps the wittiest comment I ever made in my entire life: "One Friedman at a time!"

I regard Milton as my intellectual grandfather. He was on Gary Becker's
dissertation committee, and Gary was my dissertation advisor. I am one of literally thousands of his intellectual grandchildren by this way of calculating such matters, since Milton guided literally several hundred graduate students through their Ph.D. dissertations during his tenure at the University of Chicago. Virtually all of them went on to accomplished academic careers of their own at research universities.

Here's the joke. I hope and trust that no one will take it amiss to tell a joke at a time like this. I do so because I think it helps my goal here: to celebrate the life of a distinguished intellectual by giving a peek into his life that might not be readily available elsewhere. I certainly mean to offend no one. In any case, here goes:

One day an economist looked up and saw a little girl being attacked by a vicious dog, just down the street. He rushed over and saved the girl by strangling the dog.

A reporter interviews him and says, "Sir, this is a wonderful thing you have done. Did you say you are an economist?"

"Yes, I am," says the economist.

"Very good, sir," says the reporter, "this will be our lead story tomorrow, and the headline will be 'Radical libertarian economist saves little girl from vicious dog.'"

"Well, I'm not that radical," says the economist. "I'm really more of a classical liberal."

The reporter scratches his head and says, "Well, we'll come up with something. Whose views would you say you are closest to?"

"Oh, I suppose it would be Milton Friedman," says the economist.

Next day, the economist buys the paper. Across the front page is splashed: "CHICAGOITE KILLS FAMILY PET!"

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Walter Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar, Endowed Chair of Economics Loyola University, and senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Send him mail. See his archive. Comment on the blog.