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  • Milton Friedman

    Milton Friedman would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. Instead of praising him for who he was, for what he did and for what he left behind, I shall let those people speak that knew him and whose anecdotes about Friedman will forever remain in public memory.

    “General William Westmoreland, testifying before President Nixon’s Commission on an All-Volunteer [Military] Force, denounced the idea, saying that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Milton Friedman interrupted him: “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” Westmoreland got angry: “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” And Friedman got rolling: “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general.” And he did not stop: “We are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher”.


    “Friedman was–and is–unrepentant. Of course, he did not endorse the dictatorship. But, he wrote, “I do not regard it evil for an economist to render technical economic advice to the Chilean government to help end the plague of inflation, any more than I would regard it as evil for a physician to give technical medical advice to the Chilean government to end a medical plague.” He also notes that years later, when he offered similar economic advice to China, there were no similar protests, even though the left-wing Chinese dictators were no less oppressive than Pinochet.”


    “One characteristic that came through in class, as well as in his public debates and interviews, was that he was focused on the ideas and not the personalities expressing them.  I remember seeing Friedman debating some union official on television.  He talked at one point about how he and the official had had to work hard in their youth.  Friedman seemed to like the union official; he just disagreed with some of his ideas, and wanted the union official and everyone else, to understand why.  By the end of the “debate”, the union official had a warm, amused, expression on his face.

    I remember once Friedman saying that more of us should speak out more often on more topics; that the bad consequences to us weren’t as bad as we supposed.  Probably he was right; though he had a lot working in his favor—his quick-wittedness, his good will, his sense of humor, and probably his being so short in physical stature—it was probably hard for anyone to feel threatened by him, so they were more apt to let down their guard and listen to what he had to say.”


    In 1962, Mr. Friedman took on President John F. Kennedy’s popular inaugural exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In an introduction to “Capitalism and Freedom,” a collection of his writings and lectures, he said President Kennedy had got it wrong: You should ask neither.
    “What your country can do for you,” Mr. Friedman said, implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward; and “what you can do for your country” assumes that the government is the master, the citizen the servant. Rather, he said, you should ask, “What I and my compatriots can do through government to help discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all protect our freedom.”


    At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”


    I once had the experience of leading a Liberty Fund Colloquium where we discussed empirical measures of economic freedom. I won’t mention all the sixteen or so participants, all of whom were powerful speakers, witty, highly articulate and knowledgeable. But I’ll mention this: aside from Milton Friedman, there was his wife Rose and their son David.

    As can be expected, it was difficult apportioning scarce time amongst so many top theorists on this issue; a hard and fast rule in such events is that only one person could speak at a time. Anyone who knows them knows that Milton, Rose, and David would have dominated our deliberations. Things came to such a pass that I remember screaming out, perhaps the wittiest comment I ever made in my entire life: “One Friedman at a time!”



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