Milton Friedman was a giant of modern times, and following his death yesterday, at the age of 94, I keep thinking how well his wisdom can serve us in the struggles ahead. The news is already full of articles describing his ideas, achievements and influence. What stands out in all of this, and what stood out in almost any conversation with Milton Friedman, was his tremendous respect for the individual, and for the great benefits that come when individuals are — in his trademark phrase — “free to choose.”
For many years, in many places, Milton Friedman was vilified for this. He came of age in a century that had a great romance with the collective — with communism, with big government, with paternalistic systems that he rightly believed worked to strip individuals of their freedom, and waste their talents and ingenuity. He stood by his ideas. His vindication came not in the form of the Nobel Prize, though he won one in 1976, but in the form of people living better lives in places where his ideas were put into practice. In the radical 1960s, the real radicalism — in the best sense — lay not in the standard protests of the day, but in works such as Milton Friedman’s then highly controversial “Capitalism and Freedom.” Over the years, in places from Chile to China to the United States itself, he patiently argued and taught and defended again and again the colossal importance of being free to choose.
I first had the privilege of meeting Milton in the 1960s — there was a party in his honor at the University of Rochester, and I was a young faculty brat, serving refreshments. In encounters on four continents over almost 40 years, what stood out in every conversation was his love of freedom, which was at core, I think, a great affection for individual life. Milton loved life; he was endlessly curious, always interested, always willing to talk and think deeper about that basic theme: freedom. At a protest against him in Chicago, in the early 1980s, I remember him taking time to chat amiably with one of his hecklers — always hoping to persuade.
In 1992, just before heading off on a reporting trip to Russia, I saw Milton and his wife, Rose — the love of his life, and his intellectual partner, an economist in her own right — at a conference in Vancouver. I asked his advice about the post-Soviet reforms on which Russia was just embarking, and I can still hear him calling after me, as I left the meeting: “Property rights! They must have property rights!”
Milton and Rose Friedman were family friends. One of the finest evenings I can remember was a dinner at my parents’ home in Chicago, more than a quarter of a century ago, where Milton traded witticisms with one of the best, the late Nobel laureate and free-market economist George Stigler — another great believer in the importance of individual freedom. It’s been too long to remember the lines*, but in thinking about it tonight, I went looking on the internet for the photo posted above. It shows diminutive Milton and tall George strolling together near their offices at the University of Chicago — a scene that someone at the time dubbed “Two Giants of the Chicago School.” It captures, perhaps, a halcyon moment in the modern history of ideas.
These giants are now gone. We are moving into a century beset by another war of ideas, fighting enemies who thrive on death-cult destruction, bred under systems that throttle individual freedom. Milton Friedman spent his life stocking our arsenal with precepts that can help us win this war, if we so choose.
*Note: A cousin, who was at that dinner, which must have been in the late 1970s, has written in to remind me that one of the exchanges involved Milton Friedman good-humoredly blaming George Stigler for the economic malaise of England (this was before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister). Friedman reminded Stigler that the two of them had gone together to London shortly after World War II (probably during Winston Churchill’s final round as prime minister, in the early 1950s). Friedman wanted to tell Churchill that economically he was on the wrong path. Stigler talked him out of it, on grounds that Churchill wasn’t going to listen to two kids from America. So they didn’t try — and England sank.