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Farewell, Uncle Milty

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Professor Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, Senior Research Fellow at the august Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago, founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society, best-selling author and tireless advocate of human liberty, passed away yesterday at the age of 94.

A self-described economist by vocation and policy entrepreneur by avocation, Professor Friedman was rare indeed: a specialist in science who reached the top of his field and a gifted public intellectual who popularized his insights, thus profoundly influencing debate. He was both paragon and polymath. His technical contributions to economics in the twentieth century were broad and deep: he produced the permanent income hypothesis of consumption, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, the negative income tax and monetarist theories of inflation and business cycle history.

In various obituaries, he is described as a “conservative”, a label he repudiated. How many conservatives would argue, during the Vietnam war, against the draft? How many conservatives favor decriminalizing heroin and prostitution?

For a comprehensive description of his contributions to public life and the field of economics, see the links I have included below. I will restrict myself to some personal reflections:
  • When I was about twelve years old, I was bored at Ace’s parents’ place in Montreal, and picked up “Free to Choose” off his father’s bookshelf. This was my first introduction to Professor Friedman’s lucid and engaging style.
  • Years later, as a student in Paris, I came to the realization that all of my beliefs and prejudices were inexorably influenced by my environment and upbringing – what I took to be random variables. As such, I commenced the arduous task of stripping these cherished beliefs down and rebuilding my views from first principles. One evening, in a smoky bar in the Quartier Latin, I found myself arguing with a garden-variety college lefty and a Wharton Reaganite. More than that, I was arguing with myself. “One one hand,” I was describing the best arguments for greater government intervention in a certain sphere. I continued, “But Milton Friedman would reply…” My Reaganite friend paused for a second, broke into a wide, maudlin smile, and replied, “Good ol’ Uncle Milty!”
  • Back in Philadelphia a few years later, my Public Policy prof was explaining to us how revolutionary the Coase Theorem was in its day. According to the story, when Professor Coase first proposed the idea, it caused consternation amongst the faculty at the U. of Chicago. So they set aside a day where they could challenge the theory and Coase would be obliged to defend it. By and by, it got late and so they all retired to Uncle Milty’s house. There, they stayed up all night (I imagine they were drinking bourbon) discussing the matter. In the wee hours, after all the other professors had tried their attacks, Professor Friedman spoke up and began an intensive cross-examination of the witness. When day broke, Coase was still standing, and having survived Friedman’s inquiry it was apparent to all that his idea was important, correct and thus revolutionary. If you could withstand Friedman’s critiques, your idea must have been good. In this particular case, it was Nobel-Prize-winning good.
  • A couple of years later in San Francisco, Double Barrel and I were poring over his copies of the Hoover Digest. “Shazzy,” Double Barrel announced, “we need to find out where Milton Friedman hangs out and buy him some drinks!” Sadly, we never achieved this goal.
  • Lastly, in July 2004, I donned my tuxedo and attended the award-giving ceremony for The Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize For Advancing Liberty at the Ritz-Carleton. True to form, Uncle Milty was both insightful and witty. After the dinner, I was waiting for the valet to get my car, when I turned to my left and was surprised to see the Professor with his wife Rose, a distinguished economist in her own right. She gave me a warm smile, and as I helped her into her limo, I whispered “thanks for all your hard work.” I couldn’t bring myself to address Uncle Milty himself. I mean, I’ve met celebrities, billionaires and Nobelists before. But this was Milton Friedman!
Rest in peace, Uncle Milty - you deserve it.

I leave the last word to the pithy Baroness Thatcher: "He was an intellectual freedom fighter. Never was there a less dismal practitioner of a dismal science."

Further reading:
Professor Goolsbee's New York Times commentary
Samual Brittan's FT Obituary
Professor Mankiw's 1998 article "The Economist Of The Century"
Then-Governor Bernanke's 2003 Speech
The Cato Institute
The Hoover Institution Press Release

Tyler Cowen's Initial Take

Ideachannel's list of speeches and documents

1 Responses to “Farewell, Uncle Milty”

  1. Anonymous Sunset Shazz 

    Double Barrel writes:

    On a brief personal note, I have been a firm believer in Friedman's ideas for a long time, but nothing brought home the power of his ideas more than a trip to South America.

    After months of backpacking around South America, I finally made my way to Chile. I had been subject to the worst possible roads, interminable inefficiencies at every turn, numerous dangerous neighborhoods and saddened by the abject poverty of many of the inhabitants (in the typical post-Spanish colonial style whereby the rich still feel it is their right to extract all of the wealth of a given country while the masses suffer greatly- thanks again for a great legacy, Spain). Chile, however, was different. The roads were paved, there were signs of prosperity and new building everywhere, the people looked healthy, things actually got done as scheduled and the streets were, generally, safe. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.

    Most of this, in my mind, was directly due to the implementation of the ideas of Friedman and his "Chicago boys" disciples. The Pinochet regime has been rightly vilified for its methods, but the General's decision to reject collectivism in favor of free market ideas has created a shining light in a dark corner of the globe and provided a stunning rebuke to economic freedom's enemies.

    R.I.P., Uncle Milty. It is a rare and precious thing for someone to be able to claim that the world is a significantly better place because they lived, but we all must bow our heads and count our blessings that you walked this Earth.

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  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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