Memories of Milton
By David Henderson
As co-blogger Bryan and many others have noted, today would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday. Over the years, I have posted appreciations of him and so I don’t want to redo it. Instead, I’ll link to a few and give a few reminiscences.
I first met Milton in May 1970 when I flew from Winnipeg to Chicago to visit Harold Demsetz. Milton gave me about 10 to 15 minutes and I had the feeling that the little pep talk he gave me was one he had given to starry-eyed libertarian idealists many times before: “Make politics an avocation, not a vocation” (this is verbatim) and “Ayn Rand is good but there are a lot of good people to read besides her. Don’t get stuck on her” (this is roughly right) are ones that come to mind. I also remember what he said that day when he autographed my copy of Capitalism and Freedom: “This ought to keep it out of the resale market.”
I’ve written elsewhere (here, here, and here) about Milton’s role in helping end military conscription and so I won’t repeat it here and I won’t even repeat one of my favorites: his interaction with General Westmoreland.
Milton was also one of the leaders in speaking out against the drug war. At a joint Cato/CISLE conference in Mexico City in May 1992, Milton chaired a session on the drug war at which I gave my “A Humane Economist’s Case For Drug Legalization” talk. I’ll never forget how he started his loving intro of me, which I have on audio/video somewhere: “I’ve known David Henderson since he was a little snippet.”
The editors of National Review made an important point about Milton this morning, which I had never thought of, but which rings true. They wrote:
“Friedman’s economics was in many ways an economics of the poor.” I think I can say accurately that he was the first adult I met who thought hard about how to make the poor better off.
In my review of his and Rose Friedman’s memoir, Two Lucky People, I highlight some of his intellectual contributions and one of my favorite stories, his speaking truth to power. Even though you can read it there, I’ll retell it here:
Milton tells of visiting the White House in September 1971, a month after Nixon imposed comprehensive wage and price controls. His friend and former colleague George Shultz was in charge of administering the controls. As Friedman got up to leave his meeting with Nixon and Shultz, Nixon volunteered that wage and price controls were a monstrosity and that they would get rid of them as soon as possible, adding, “Don’t blame George for this monstrosity.” “As I remember it,” writes Friedman, “I replied something like, `I don’t blame George. I blame you, Mr. President.'”
The story also illustrates Milton Friedman’s capacity to make important distinctions and judge accordingly. Just two months after his White House meeting, I attended a libertarian conference at Columbia University at which many in the audience were trying to push Friedman to attack Nixon. Friedman denounced Nixon for the price controls but wouldn’t go beyond that, insisting that we give credit to Nixon for trying to end the draft. Friedman’s complete unwillingness to pander to his audience set an example that I have never forgotten.
Incidentally, two months ago, I was going through old tapes of conferences and came across that one. It was fun listening to it over 40 years later.
In that same review of his and Rose’s book, I wrote:
Even more strikingly, Milton doesn’t talk much about how his views evolved during graduate school or after he completed his Ph.D. Yet evolve they did. Most notably, his views on the causes of inflation changed dramatically. The Milton Friedman that most of us know about is the one who said, in a famous 1968 debate with Keynesian economist Walter Heller, “the state of the budget by itself has no significant effect on…inflation” and who wrote in 1963, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” By contrast, here’s what Friedman says about testimony he gave as a Treasury economist in 1942: “The most striking feature of this [testimony] is how thoroughly Keynesian it is. I did not even mention `money’ or `monetary policy’! The only `methods of avoiding inflation’ I mentioned in addition to taxation were `price control and rationing, control of consumers’ credit, reduction in governmental spending, and war bond campaigns.'”
What happened between 1942 and the early 1950s that changed Friedman’s mind? Maybe the explanation is simply that he gathered data that persuaded him of the power of monetary policy. But in most intellectual autobiographies I have read, there’s one event, piece of evidence, story, conversation, or argument that starts the process of change. Friedman mentions no such epiphany.
A couple of months after the review came out, I saw him at a Hoover dinner and he told me that he didn’t leave out any epiphanies, that his views had changed so gradually that he couldn’t identify what he called a “Saul on the road to Damascus” moment.
One thing that I learned recently that surprised me, given Murray Rothbard’s animosity to Milton Friedman, is how important Milton was even in Murray’s development. I tell that briefly here.
One very personal memory I have is of the Mont Pelerin Society meetings at Hoover in 1980. I had attended them in 1978 in Hong Kong and my attendance at the Hoover meetings put me in the zone for being nominated to be a member. I asked him to nominate me for membership. Why did I think he would? Because at the final banquet, Milton was giving the closing speech, hitting highlights of the week-long meeting. His son, David, and I had been very active in the floor discussion. Milton said, “And I don’t want to close without mentioning the contributions of David: both of them.”