How Milton Friedman Responded to Some Hostile Audience Members
The horrible treatment of a speaker at Stanford Law School by some law students and a dean a couple of weeks ago reminded me of something that happened over 50 years ago.
In November 1971, when I was attending the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, my newfound friend Harry Watson (who, sadly, died last Sunday) and I drove down to New York City to attend a libertarian conference at Columbia University. The speakers I remember were Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and David Friedman and, in my mind, both ex ante and ex post, the star was Milton.
First up was Milton who said that he wouldn’t be making a speech but would take questions that we wrote out and sent to the front. The emcee was Gary Greenberg, who sorted through the questions and read them out.
There were about 150 people in the auditorium and about 5 to 10 of them were in the back wearing all black. Some of them carried copies of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State. They stood and held their copies in one hand and made a fist with the other. (One of them, I think, was my fellow Canadian Sam Konkin.) That was annoying enough but, hey, they had the right to dress and hold themselves however they wanted. But then when Milton started speaking, they interrupted by booing and shouting out hostile comments and questions. Milton ignored them at first but they kept it up. So finally, Milton stopped and said, “Is that any way for people to behave?” Harry and I were in front and, along with many others in the audience, we shouted “No.” Then all but a few stopped heckling, but one or two shouted out something. A guy behind us yelled, “I came to hear him, not you.”
Then it stopped. But as Milton started to answer the first question, a few people in the back hissed long and hard.
Milton stopped what he was saying and then said, “Well, in that case, sssssss.” The audience, including Harry and me, roared with laughter. The hissing stopped and the event proceeded.
The reason I remember this so well is that I taped the talk and played it a number of times. Also, I think I taped over it because cassette tapes were pricy relative to my wealth. (That was a mistake, even ex ante.)
I’m not comparing the awful actions of 5 to 10 people in an audience of 150 to the awful and persistent actions of dozens of people in an audience of 100 or so. So the judge probably would not have been able to use Milton’s technique effectively.
Mar 26 2023 at 11:05am
One of my favorite Friedman responses to a hostile audience member is in this video, 2:45 – 3:25.
Mar 26 2023 at 11:51am
Mar 26 2023 at 1:57pm
My favorite response to a hostile audience still has to be Dylan’s in Manchester in 1966. Not everyone has The Hawks as backup though.
Mar 26 2023 at 3:19pm
That Friedman’s technique might not have worked for the judge is a statement about campus culture at Stanford circa 2023 vs. campus culture circa 1971. The response to the question, “Is that any way for people to behave?” might have been quite different at the Stanford Law School event.
Mar 27 2023 at 2:44pm
Unfortunately, I agree.
Mar 26 2023 at 6:19pm
I believe I was at the same event. I had driven to New York from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. I vaguely remember the episode you describe. But what I remember more was the gathering afterward when Milton was standing in the hallway answering more questions. One person asked him, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” To which Milton replied with the same smile you show in the photo, “What makes you think I’m not?”
There was no arguing with Milton Friedman!
Mar 27 2023 at 2:46pm
Wow! Neat that you were there too!
Do you remember how Murray Rothbard started his talk? Really bush league.
I do remember Milton speaking to people outside the room. One of the main things I remember, besides the fact that he was engaging and was nailing every answer, is that he was wearing a fedora hat.
Mar 27 2023 at 8:44pm
I don’t remember Rothbard’s talk. But subsequently I had other interactions with him. I never found him persuasive and it was clear he and Milton didn’t get along. Empirical analysis was not his thing.
Mar 27 2023 at 3:33pm
The man certainly had some practice with hostile audiences …
even in the most unexpected places
Mar 28 2023 at 1:56pm
One of my favorites. I love the pure clean anger in his face and then how quickly he gets over it.
Mar 27 2023 at 3:53pm
Friedman’s legendary civility was evident in the class room as well. When a student made a statement that was incorrect, Friedman politely said, “I beg your pardon?” The class responded with subtle amusement as they were about about witness an explanation they would remember.
Comments are closed.