Milton Friedman on Raising Tuition
By David Henderson
In preparing for my two talks on “How Economists Helped End the Draft,” to be given at Berry College on September 11 and at Middle Tennessee State University on September 12, I was perusing Milton and Rose Friedman’s autobiography, Two Lucky People. Milton, as you probably know, was one of the key figures in making the economists’ case against the draft during the 1960s. I came across the following passage that he wrote about his time as a visiting professor at UCLA during the winter quarter of 1967:
One of Governor Reagan’s proposals was to raise substantially the tuition at state colleges and universities. That was of course highly unpopular with the students at those institutions and produced a wave of student protests and demonstrations. At UCLA, the Economics Department–or perhaps it was a student economics society–decided to stage a debate on the issue. Professor Michael Intriligator of the economics faculty was designated to argue against the proposed raise in tuition, and I agreed to defend it. Not surprisingly, I was greeted with subdued boos when I walked into the room, and my opponent with hearty cheers. However, he had a weak case, and I a strong one. I told the students that they were objects of charity, that there was no government program that so clearly transferred income from low- to high-income people as government subsidization of higher education [DRH note: my own view is that you can find many–start with subsidies to build sports arenas, although maybe those subsidies didn’t exist at the time]: that, to put it dogmatically [DRH note: I think I remember his using the term “demagogically,” not “dogmatically,” when he told the story elsewhere], the people in Watts were paying the college expenses of the people from Beverly Hills–an image particularly appropriate for a debate conducted in Los Angeles.
This debate made a deep impression on me, because of the reaction of the audience. As the debate proceeded, the atmosphere changed from hostility to support, and, at the end, the audience voted by a large majority in favor of the position I was defending. It was an ironic outcome. Economists generally rely on people to pursue their own self-interest, rather narrowly defined. Yet here I was, an economist, appealing to the students to rise above their own self-interest, and they did so, at least for the time being.