A Capital Thinker

Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

Milton Friedman was an unlikely candidate to become a great man. He was born in 1912 to obscurity and poverty, his parents Jewish immigrants from Central Europe. Only a couple of inches over 5 feet, he was physically unimpressive. He never accumulated great wealth or held elective office. His name never became a household word. Yet by the time of his death in November at 94, Friedman had transformed the world.

Ronald Reagan may have deployed the principles of free markets and individual responsibility in the realm of practical politics, just as William F. Buckley Jr. introduced them into public discourse. Yet Milton Friedman gave those principles clarity, definition and unassailable intellectual rigor. Without the decades of analysis that he had performed, the tax cuts, deregulation and limits on the money supply of the 1980s—policies that revived the economy and restored American morale—might have been swept away with the first change in political tides. Friedman showed why liberty still matters. Today, China, India and countries in Eastern Europe have embraced Friedman’s principles—the prime minister of Estonia once remarked that Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was one of the few economics books he had ever read—lifting several hundred million people out of poverty. His work led to so much good for so many.

How did Friedman achieve so much, producing critical breakthroughs in economics—empirical and theoretical demonstrations of the importance of money, a compelling theory of consumer savings, the concept of a “natural” rate of unemployment—then go on to achieve such extensive influence outside the academy? I knew Friedman for 18 years. When, leaving my job as a White House speechwriter, I told President Reagan I would be moving to Stanford, he replied, “Get in touch with my friend Milton. He’ll keep you on the straight-and-narrow.” Now I find myself calling to mind three of Friedman’s attributes.

His capacity for work proved incredible. Although by the time I met him Friedman had had nothing to prove to anybody for decades, he remained as hard-working as an assistant professor struggling to attain tenure. He gave lectures, sat for interviews, wrote papers, and published often in the Wall Street Journal—and kept up that pace even after turning 90. Friedman’s last published work was an article in the Wall Street Journal the day after he died. He had adapted the article from a major academic paper on which he was working.

The second attribute: utter intellectual honesty. Milton Friedman was no respecter of persons. If you had a good idea, it made no difference if you were a mere undergraduate. Friedman would take your idea, discuss it with you, embellish it, and make you feel you had taught something to him. But if you had a bad idea, it made no difference if you were president of the United States. In advising Richard Nixon, Friedman proved particularly merciless. “I don’t give a good goddamn what Milton Friedman says,” Nixon once famously barked to John Ehrlichman. “He’s not running for re-election.”

Friedman rejected jargon, imprecision or obfuscation of any kind, refusing to hedge or qualify his views. Interviewing Friedman a couple of years ago, I pressed him on his support for Bush’s tax cuts, noting that the administration’s rationale—that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy—sounded suspiciously Keynesian. Friedman agreed, roundly rejecting the administration’s position. But as for himself, “I . . . favor . . . any tax cut, under any circumstances, in any form whatsoever.” Clear enough?

The final attribute is the one on which I find myself lingering now that Friedman is gone: his relationship with his wife of 68 years, Rose. Throughout his career, Friedman often pointed out, he never published any work that Rose hadn’t read, marked up and improved. Rose was his best friend—and sharpest critic. She kept him grounded. The last time I saw them together, I called Friedman the most important economist of the 20th century. Rose nodded, enjoying the compliment. But when Friedman himself looked her way, she rolled her eyes. Friedman threw back his head and laughed.

The great man loved his wife.

PETER ROBINSON, MBA ’90, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1983 to 1988, he was special assistant and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.