Bryan Caplan  

An Ode to Milton Friedman

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John Taylor vs. Ryan Avent... Memories of Milton...
Today would have been Milton Friedman's 100th birthday.  I only met the man long enough for him to sign my copy of Capitalism and Freedom, but he's been a tremendous influence on me. 

All of my other adolescent intellectual heroes - Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises - gradually came to seem less impressive in my eyes.  But the greatness of Milton Friedman is as constant as the Northern Star.  Whether he's calling for the abolition of medical licensing in Capitalism and Freedom, or analyzing the co-movement of the money supply and money velocity in A Monetary History of the United States, Friedman takes controversial stances, and actually convinces people.

Why does Friedman stand apart from my other idols?  In the end, it's the absence of obscurantism.  Friedman makes his points as simply, clearly, and bluntly as possible.  He never rambles on.  He never hides behind academic jargon.  He almost never makes bizarre philosophical assertions to explain away obvious facts.  He never tries to win fair weather converts by speaking in vague generalities about "liberty."  Friedman never turned out to have feet of clay, because he played every game barefoot.

Many libertarians look down on Friedman for his moderation and statist compromises.  I'm about as radical as libertarians come, but these critics have never impressed me.  By any normal standard, Friedman was a very radical libertarian indeed.  If you're going to take points off for a few deviations, remember to give him extra credit for earnestly trying to convince people who didn't already agree with him.  His arguments for liberty weren't just intellectually compelling; he made them with humor and common decency.  Friedman was a paragon of libertarian friendliness - a model of the nobility we should all aspire to. 

In a just world, we'd all be Friedmanites now.  But don't be bitter that he wasn't more successful.  Rejoice that a century ago, Milton Friedman was born - and forever enriched the world of ideas.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Speedmaster writes:

Indeed! Well-written. Friedman is one of my heroes as well. In addition to what you stated I'll add that he always seemed super-sharp, always ready with an answer, the right response. And seemingly never did it without a kind smile.

The world is a much better place for having had him.

Greg G writes:

Even though I am not a libertarian and disagreed with him on many issues I still consider Milton Friedman to be one of the great economists of all time and surely one of the best debaters of all time.

Bryan, your point about libertarian friendliness is spot on. Friedman was successful in opening minds precisely because he questioned the logic, not the motives, of his opponents. I am always amused that many libertarians like to scream that taxes are theft and non-libertarians are jack booted thugs and then seem genuinely astonished that they are not more influential.

vitadMD writes:

He actually referred to himself as a "big 'R' Republican, small 'l' libertarian"...

Friedman is my hero for the way he behaved himself, the way he comported himself in debate.

I'm trying to study up on that comportment. But to my knowledge Friedman did not teach his manner of comportment, except by example. Are there any other teachers of this stuff?

Who Cares writes:

I too came to read Milton's books and Newsweek pieces after becoming interested in Ayn Rand's ideas. And I too have become less of a follower of Rand and more of Friedman as the years have gone by, probably because of their contrasting styles of debate and characterization of others, in addition to Friedman's focus on practical and specific matters. In my biased opinion, the two giants of 20th century thought were Einstein and Friedman.

Michael Rulle writes:

Your sentiments are well put. A rare once in a while one truly misses a public intellectual. One always wonders how they would respond to various "current" issues. His writing for the lay reader was so clear, I had come to always associate his style itself with the University of Chicago. I think he did impact the clear writing of many of his former students.

Carlos Góes writes:
He actually referred to himself as a "big 'R' Republican, small 'l' libertarian"...

Exactly. Small 'l' libertarian - related to liberianism, not the Libertarian Party. Capital 'R' Republican - related to the Republican Party, not republicanism.

Hope you understood the actual meaning of the phrase. Some people might think that he was saying that because he didn't consider himself libertarian enough. But capital/small L/libertarians are references to the Party/ideology.

Russell writes:

I'm a big fan of the Mises.org family and have learned much from them. But their incessant anti-Friedman rhetoric is nauseating. Milton Friedman might not have been perfect (who is?), but he was one of the greatest promoters of personal freedom and liberty that ever lived.

Matthew Swaringen writes:

The guy who designed the withholding tax doesn't really deserve to be known as the "greatest promoter" of personal freedom and liberty.

There are so many names that deserve more respect that get less mention by far.

He deserves respect for what he defended aptly, but there is a reason people become "anti-Friedman."

Paul T writes:

Uh, Bryan, when did your "paragon of libertarian friendliness" apologize for his advocacy for the perversion of basic principles of contract? You know what I'm referring to.

Indeed, it's time to recall again the income tax withholding issue. Well, perhaps Friedman never apologized at all but was defiant, instead, as when he stated

I have no apologies for it.

How very friendly of him. A few moments after that remark he lamented that

I wish there were some way of abolishing withholding now.

Between those two comments, the "very radical libertarian indeed" slipped in a rationalization for withholding:

I really wish we hadn't found it necessary.

Let's pass over in silence Friedman's primitive-minded confusion of want and need. Instead, recall that no inflation-fighting warmonger should ever have to make do without "the enormous amount of taxes you need for wartime".

It's no small wonder that the nobleminded hero of your adolescence failed to finance a thermonuclear war. But the military socialist sure did come close after financing his puny little fission bomb war, no?

The affable New Dealer's remarks about withholding, wartime, and more can be found in Best of Both Worlds. In fact, you can learn from it that Milton preferred the term liberal over libertarian. After all, a person like Milton, who favored compulsory schooling, too, must be a liberal, just like all the friendly, smiling leftists who adopted that word as a cloak to cover their illiberalism.

deepelemblues writes:

Some great examples of the libertarian (in)ability to win friends and influence people showing up in the comments.

HonestLibertarian writes:

Friedman dogmatically avoked paper money and credit expansion. The alternative to him after the collapse of the keynesian paradigms, were austrian hard-money economic theory.

Instead the western world attempted monetarism for a small while, which quickly failed.

I think the modern monetary and financial system is a huge failure and has allowed for a huge expansion of government. On that basis I safely conclude that it would have been better if Friedman was never born and never allowed into the Mont Pelerin Society in my opinion.

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