Monday, July 30, 2012

Remembering Milton Friedman on His 100th Birthday.

I can remember precisely where I was the first time I met Milton Friedman. I was standing in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill. I was there for a banquet sponsored by the think tank where I worked. Someone brought over Milton and Rose Friedman to introduce them.

Of course I knew who they were. I had watched Free to Choose on television. I had read the book. Earlier I had read Capitalism and Freedom. I had followed his career for years. So, I was more than thrilled to meet someone I considered a hero.

Now, so many news accounts of his life have referred to him as a “giant” in his field. He was called “larger than life”. So perhaps it would come to many as a great surprise that he was not much over 5 feet tall. And I have to admit that was the first thing that struck me when he came walking up to me with Rose at his size; she stood no taller than he did.

My first thought, which I did not express, was: “Dr. Friedman, you write so much taller.” And he did. He wrote the words of greatness. He wrote about high ideals and principle.

So many publications in the last day have referred to him as a “conservative” yet he was no such thing. He was a great and passionate liberal—a real liberal—a classical liberal—a libertarian.

Many people forget that Friedman as an adviser to Richard Nixon was a major proponent for abolishing military conscription. This was an issue strongly embraced by the New Left, but they had no ability to implement it. Friedman worked hard to end forced service to the military. And the Left typically ignored that or, more likely, just never bothered to find out the truth.

In his later years Friedman was one of the most vocal advocates of legalizing drugs. He said the war on drugs was a disaster. It eroded personal liberty, corrupted the police, expanded state power, wasted billions of dollars, made the streets less safe and made drugs more dangerous;  at the same time it managed to do almost nothing to prevent the use of drugs.

Friedman also was a major advocate of helping America’s poor by making it possible for them to get quality education, something denied in government schools—especially the schools of the inner city. He pushed for a voucher system where a portion of the funding the state would spend on a student’s education could be given directly to the parents to help them afford private education.

Of course, the teacher’s unions did not want competition. And, if they had to screw over the poor to feather their nest, they were happy to do so. Not only did Friedman push for school choice for the poor, but he poured a great deal of his own money into establishing the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation to educate and lobby for increased choice in education.

It was clear that Milton Friedman was a man with a passion for the freedom and dignity of the individual. He was against conscription because it violated that freedom and dignity. He was against the war on drugs because it made life far worse for the people it was ostensibly meant to help. He wanted all children to have access to a quality education and he knew enough economics to know that a state monopoly was not the means to achieve that end.

That evening we spoke briefly. And the name of a minor Austrian economist and vocal critic of Friedman’s came up. Friedman said something that I strongly disagreed with at the time. But out of respect I didn’t challenge him. I later read an interview with him where he said that one thing he missed, as his fame spread, was people arguing with him and telling him he was wrong. He said that one of the things he really appreciated about Rose, his wife of 68 years, was that she never hesitated to tell him he was wrong.

After reading that I wish I had debated a bit but then again I’m glad I didn’t. Some years later it is I who changed my mind and have since come around to agreeing with Friedman.

In 1989 I began organizing a conference that would take place in San Francisco. This was a massive, several day event with close to 40 speakers from around the world, and, for the closing banquet, I wanted Milton Friedman as the speaker.

Of course, Friedman was world-famous. He had won his Nobel Prize in economics, his TV series Free to Choose, and the subsequent book, had been wildly popular. He had just been honored by the president. He easily commanded a speaking fee of $10,000 and often did.

So I sat down and wrote him a letter. I explained to him that at this conference there were few or no academics. These were not the elite of the business world. These were the average advocates of freedom. Most were working people. They held down jobs, but they were passionate about the ideals that Friedman espoused. I asked him if he would consider speaking and pointed out that the hotel was just a few blocks from his home and he was free to talk on any topic he wished.

A week or so later I got a letter from Dr. Friedman telling me he would be happy to speak.
We had something like 400 people show up for the banquet that night. And it was such a thrill to have the hotel come and inform me that Dr. and Mrs. Friedman had arrived. I went out to greet them and escort them back to our table. I remember walking into the main dining room with these two lovely people and the entire assembly of 400 gave them a standing ovation.

I brought them to our table and introduced them around to the other friends who were sitting there that night. In addition to Milton and Rose and myself, there was my dinner date, Frances Kendell and Leon Louw of South Africa, Barbara Branden the biographer of Ayn Rand; and Vince Miller.

I know the food was wonderful, but I don’t remember that. I just remember the thrill of having all that time sitting with Milton and Rose and talking. And, it was a double thrill since the entirety of Eastern Europe was in the process of throwing off the yoke of communism. The communist states were collapsing under their own dead weight.

In my introduction of Dr Friedman I said that if I were to build a Mount Rushmore of liberty it would include him, FA Hayek, Ludwig Mises and Ayn Rand. He was most gracious in his thanks and then gave an “in-house” speech, one to people who already agreed with him. He said that while he loved speaking to many different groups, it was an evening like this that really gave him the ability to talk about anything he wanted. So he talked about libertarianism itself, offering his advice and wisdom on where he thought libertarians sometimes go wrong.

See the video of that very evening at the end of this essay.

He finished to another standing ovation and sat down. I announced that we would have a few announcements from Vince Miller and then Dr. Friedman would take questions from the floor. Vince made the announcements and one of them was to inform guests that we had parking vouchers for the hotel parking which gave people a discount on their parking. Dr. Friedman leaned over to me and said: “Make sure I get one of those.”

I was fully aware of what sort of fees this man could command easily at other dinners. And I knew he was giving his time and efforts freely, asking nothing in return. So I said: “Dr. Friedman. Don’t worry. We’ll be happy to pay your parking.”

He smiled and said: “Oh, I don’t mind paying. I just don’t want to pay full price.”

We both laughed and I pulled one of the vouchers out of my pocket and handed it to him. As I gave it to him I said: “Well, this has to be one of the cheapest honorariums you have ever received.”

Ever the gentleman he said: “Any good economist will tell you that there is a lot more to benefits than just monetary rewards.”

That was a good point and a compliment to all those who had come to hear him.

I have seen Milton Friedman in action on numerous occasions, never once did I see him lose his temper. Surely he must have done so sometimes, but I never heard of it. I remember one day he was speaking at Stanford University at an event sponsored by student Republicans and student Libertarians. Friedman explained that while he was a small L libertarian, he was a Republican out of practical necessity. And once again he was happy to take questions from the floor.

This was a public forum and the hall was packed, so there were many opponents of liberty in the audience advocating one form of state control or another. And, they were not always polite in expressing their disagreements. But again Friedman was always the gentleman. If you watch the old Free to Choose series there was a debate that took place after each episode where Friedman would face some of his staunchest critics. Not once do I remember him losing his temper regardless of what was said.

I have read the portraits painted of Friedman by the ideologues of the Left, who apparently share none of his gentlemanly traits or his general benevolence. I know they never saw how gracious, kind, polite and truly benevolent Milton Friedman was. Instead, they invented stories about him or grossly distorted the facts or misquoted him.

I don’t wish to imply that Milton Friedman was perfect. But, he was the perfect gentleman. While the economic community may wish to remember his theories, his papers and his history of monetary policy, what I remember is a gracious and kind man, with an infectious smile and a genuine sense of humor.

To order a complete DVD set of the original Free to Choose series, go here.

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