Happy 100th Dr. Friedman

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman. Thomas Sowell, a former student, has a column in the Investor’s Business Daily marking the event, as does Steven Moore in the WSJ.

I’ll never forget the single chance I had to meet the Friedmans. Dr. Friedman came to testify in favor of a school voucher bill in Austin in 2003. Out of respect to Dr. Friedman’s advanced age, the legislative committee allowed him to sit at the table with them.

The barriers to entry in the Texas legislature are fairly high, and some of the members are accomplished attorneys and businessmen-quite bright. Some members made the mistake of making ineffectual attempts to cross swords with the great man on the subject of vouchers, only to find themselves quickly dispatched. A large crowd of Hispanic parents cheered the aged intellectual gladiator on as he easily disposed of his foes.

A few years ago I had the chance to author a paper on Dr. Friedman’s influence on education policy, and then to attend a symposium with five other authors who focused on different policy areas. I did not fully appreciate Milton Friedman’s greatness until I participated in that symposium. Doug Bandow’s paper on Friedman’s role in ending the draft literally made me laugh out loud on my flight to San Fransisco.

Friedman was a determined opponent of the draft, and served on a commission appointed by President Nixon to study the transition to an all volunteer force. General Westmoreland took time out of his busy schedule of mishandling the war effort in Vietnam to vocally oppose an all-volunteer military. He made the mistake of asserting that he did not want to lead “an army of mercenaries” in a public forum. Dr. Friedman unloaded on him. Friedman described the scene in Two Lucky People:

In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’

I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic  volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a  mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we  heard from the general about mercenaries.


Dr. Friedman showed us all how to go about our tasks-calm, rational and fearless devotion to logic and evidence. Happy Birthday Milton- we still need you, but will have to do our best on our own. We are in your debt.

10 Responses to Happy 100th Dr. Friedman

  1. George Mitchell says:

    I, too, had a single opportunity to meet Dr. Friedman (and his wife). I attempted to defend the fact that not all parents were eligible for the Milwaukee choice program. Dr. and Mrs. Friedman graciously refuted my points. They correctly forecast and feared a proliferation of programs layered with income and other limits.

    In a speech later that evening, with Dr. and Mrs. Friedman in the audience, a prominent choice supporter went out of his way to say he backed choice for “different reasons” than those espoused by the Friedmans. Not classy.

  2. Thanks for this insight into who Milton Friedman was. I’m amazed at how often people present a caricature of Milton Friedman as some sort of right-wing monster, focusing only on efficiency and unconcerned about the stability and security of our democratic republic with humane values. In addition to being opposed to the draft, Friedman was deeply concerned with the role of education in producing future citizens.

    People like Amy Gutmann, a political theorist who is now president of Penn, don’t even bother to read Friedman when they attribute to him an indifference to civic concerns. If scholars like Gutmann actually bothered to read the works they cite, they would discover that Milton Friedman was not exclusively concerned with efficiency and was deeply concerned with civic values and humane outcomes, which is precisely why he supported vouchers.

    I wrote about this in this chapter in a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of Friedman’s original article proposing school vouchers: http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/People/Greene/Milton-Friedman-vouchers-and-civic-values.pdf

  3. Greg Forster says:

    A while back, shortly after Milton’s death, I was asked to say a few words about his legacy (as a representative of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice) on a few occasions. Usually I was asked to stick to education, but on one occasion I was asked to speak more broadly, and I made that Westmoreland exchange the highlight of my talk. It was a young crowd and they had no idea Milton had been involved in ending the draft.

    Another aspect of the story worth sharing: Nixon appointed the panel to “study” ending the draft with roughly half supporters and half opposers, no doubt hoping it would come to no firm conclusions and make the issue go away. Thanks to the tireless work of Milton and a couple of other highly effective advocates, when the panel concluded its work it was unanimous in recommending an end to the draft.

    They don’t have a font large enough for the BOOOOM that deserves.

  4. allen says:

    I wonder, did Dr. Friedman ever offer opinions on the political success of charters over vouchers?

    • Greg Forster says:

      He did! I heard him tell Jeannie Allen that charters would succeed for a while because at first they’re politically easier to get, then would stall out and lose support because they wouldn’t be able to deliver the kind of radical reform necessary to produce highly impressive and sustainable results.

      For the record: As I have said many times, Milton was a genius economist but a mediocre political scientist. His political prognostications were repeatedly falsified by events, as he himself cheerfully admitted on several occasions. In fact, the very next words out of his mouth to Jeannie were something like: “Of course, we’ll have to wait and see who’s right.”

      • allen says:

        I can see his point charters being explicitly creatures of the system and thus more immediately vulnerable to political successes by those opposed to education reform. But I wonder, and this is supposition on my part, whether the power of choice will make charters more politically resistant to interference and suppresion then Dr. Friedman would have thought?

        What I don’t believe Dr. Friedman could have factored into his cogitations with regard to charters versus vouchers is the rise of technology. Even five years ago technology was still one of those “future developments” that would forever remain a future development.

        Now? I think the fact that the names “Salman Kahn” and “Sebastian Thrun” are, if not household names, names that we all recognize instantly suggests that future is quite suddenly much nearer and it’s that technology that may have the final word about the direction and speed of change in education.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Actually, Milton was visionary in terms of forseeing the outlines of the tech revolution. He was saying literally decades ago that with the advance of computer and communications technology, we need to stop thinking about education in terms that are bound by the physical classroom. He expressed the hope that vouchers would help drive that revolution.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Don’t miss Kevin Williamson’s outstanding piece on Milton today. Williamson never met Milton but I can testify from experience that everything he says about Milton’s motives is true:

    The libertarianism of Rand (and she hated the word “libertarian”) was based on an economics of resentment of the “moochers” and “loafers,” the sort of thing that leads one to call a book The Virtue of Selfishness. Friedman’s libertarianism was based on an economics of love: for real human beings leading real human lives with real human needs and real human challenges. He loved freedom not only because it allowed IBM to pursue maximum profit but because it allowed for human flourishing at all levels. Economic growth is important to everybody, but it is most important to the poor. While Friedman’s contributions to academic economics are well appreciated and his opposition to government shenanigans is celebrated, what is seldom remarked upon is that the constant and eternal theme of his popular work was helping the poor and the marginalized…

    And that is what really should be remembered about Milton Friedman: He didn’t argue for capitalism in order to make the world safe for the Fortune 500, but to open up a world of possibilities for those who are most in need of them. The real subject of economics isn’t supply and demand, but people, and to love liberty is to love people and all that is best in them.

  6. Dave Saba says:

    I was lucky enough to attend the celebration in Chicago today and the Friedman Foundation put on an event worthy of the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman. The speech by Dr. Condoleeza Rice were exceptional:

    – “The future belongs to free markets and free people”
    – “It doesn’t matter where you came from it matters where you are going.”
    – “If I can look at your zip code and know what kind of education you will receive it matters too much where you came from”
    – “We have a national security crisis in our crisis in k12 education. Our security depends on a great education for every child and that cannot happen without choice.”
    – “Every child has to have an adult advocate it is our responsibility and our duty to ensure each child has a chance in this life”
    – “Freedom without responsibility is chaos. People today don’t want to take responsibility for themselves”
    – “Never in the American narrative has it been said that I am doing poorly because someone else is doing better. The American story is based on working hard things that matter.”

    Please know that I was furiously scribbling these quotes and that they many not be word-for-word but certainly capture the essence of an incredibly inspiring speech.

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