Landsburg's Book on Milton Friedman
By David Henderson
I enjoyed reading Steven Landsburg’s The Essential Milton Friedman, which was recently published by the Fraser Institute. It’s a short quick exposition of Friedman’s work and views by a master expositor.
My biggest surprise was the section of his last chapter in which Steve quotes at length Leo Rosten’s description of Milton. I hadn’t known until I read Milton and Rose Friedman’s autobiography, Two Lucky People, that they became lifelong friends with Rosten after meeting him in graduate school at the University of Chicago in the mid-1930s. (Personal story: I found Rosten’s famous book, The Joys of Yiddish, in my home library this morning; it was given to me by my wife-to-be, then Rena Epstein, on my 31st birthday, one month after we had met, and she dedicated it to “my favorite shaygets.”)
I hasten to add that I’m surprised, not because I think Rosten’s description doesn’t fit, but because it fits Milton exquisitely and I hadn’t known of it.
I’ll quote Steve without block quotes and then his quote from Rosten in block quotes.
For some, no degree of civility or fairness could compensate for Friedman’s infuriating refusal to accept their poorly supported prejudices. The storyteller Leo Rosten, in his book on People I Have Loved, Known or Admired, changed Friedman’s name to Fenwick but otherwise painted a portrait that was instantly recognizable to all who knew him:
He is an exceedingly lovable little man. His disposition is so sunny, his character so open, that even the Most Hardened Cynics, of whom my wife is International Chairman, call Fenwick “utterly adorable.”
Yet, says Rosten, many people can’t stand him:
Fenwick is a man who goes around being logical. He even uses reason at cocktail parties… The basic problem is that Fenwick, who is very intelligent, assumes that other people are very intelligent too. And that, believe it or not, is the way he talks to them. This makes people uneasy, for nothing is more unsettling than to be treated as if you are extremely intelligent—especially by someone you hardly know. To avoid disillusioning such a man requires that you maintain a constant state of alert, and think before you speak… It even makes you examine the partly packaged platitudes you have always employed instead of thinking.
In ordinary conversation, Fenwick is a fellow-traveler. He follows every chug in your train of thought—indeed, he leaps right on the train with you. And you have barely begun to pick up steam before Fenwick excitedly demonstrates that (a) you have taken the wrong train; or (b) it doesn’t stop where you want to go; or (c) the tracks don’t lead from your premise to your expectations; or (d) you had better jump off while the jumping’s good or you’ll land in the swamp of mushy ideas you never suspected your position rests upon.
Oscar Wilde … once quipped: “I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable… It is hitting below the intellect.” Fenwick, a beamish fellow, never hits below the intellect. He is always kind, fair, patient, moderate—which greatly increases his unpopularity. Do you follow me? Fenwick is so fair in discussions that people can’t even accuse him of using unfair tactics, than which nothing is more aggravating when you are wrong.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among those who knew Milton Friedman personally that Rosten’s portrait of the kind, fair, patient, moderate, and infuriatingly logical Fenwick is close to a perfect likeness. The maintenance of that fair and even disposition even in the face of extreme hostility is an accomplishment as rare and as praiseworthy as the permanent income hypothesis or the quantity theory of money.
End of segment from Landsburg. I love the line from Oscar Wilde.
I agree with Steve. It’s “close to a perfect likeness.” I did have one negative experience with Milton where he wasn’t like the description above and it surprised me. But I bounced back and so, apparently, did Milton; within two hours he, Rose, and I were enjoying each other’s company at the opening dinner of what turned out to be the first annual Austrian Economics Conference in South Royalton, Vermont. I would quote what happened but most close friends of mine already know the story and repeating it might sound as if I bear a grudge. I really don’t.