A Most Civil Adversary and Comrade
Tibor R. Machan
When Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate economists, leader of the Chicago School of Economics, a husband to Rose and devoted father of their two children and friend of VIPs as well as not so VIPs died the other week, I couldn’t find my voice because of how little I could really say at first about such a fine individual and how many others there are who would want to express their grief and convey some of their memories in public. I wasn’t a very close associate, nor intimate friend, only someone who now and then would have the privilege of having Uncle Milty in my life, sometimes as a kind of mentor, sometimes as celebrity intellectual, and at others as a critic, even a severe one at that. My own reflections here will focus on his style of intellectual exchange more than on other aspects of this wonderful man’s contribution to our culture.
When I began my involvement with the libertarian movement in America, I was brought in by reading the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand but then quickly discovered that beside this stimulating thinker there were several others who had been making significant contributions to the study of the free society. One of them was the economist Milton Friedman, who was, among other things, a founder of the Mt. Pelerin Society, the international association of classical liberal intellectuals founded back in the late 1940s as a rather humble antidote to the massive more or less extreme Left Wing academic, intellectual, and literary movement across the West.
Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, Fritz Machlup, and Friedman were just some of the very learned people who felt the need to go on the philosophical offensive against those who in the name of what classical liberals believed is a pure fantasy, namely, the socialist ideal, one they knew was leading countries astray on numerous fronts but most especially economically. Younger enlistees like me had to immerse ourselves in the works of these and many other defenders of the right to individual liberty and the free market society men and women required so as to flourish because, well, those championing statism were, tragically, a vast group and quite learned to boot. But their values and analyses of human affairs were seriously askew, this we quickly realized, especially those of us who had a solid taste of socialism and would-be communism shoved down our throats back behind the Iron Curtain early in our lives. (Rand, von Mises, von Hayek, Thomas Szasz, and others in the classical liberal group had themselves experienced either fascism, socialism or both for part of theirs.)
In time I tried to make some contribution to the literature, as well as to efforts to spread the ideas about liberty throughout the media. One of these was helping to found Reason Magazine as a serious, dependable monthly publication containing accessible yet in depth analyses of society from the libertarian perspective. One of the features of the magazine was to be lengthy, probing interviews with important thinkers from several sides of the intellectual spectrum. These included Nathaniel Branden, Thomas Szasz, Yale Brozen, Bill Niskanan, Bill Buckley, Nicholas von Hoffman, Sidney Hook, F. A. Hayek, Yale Brozen, et al, and, also, Professor Milton Friedman.
I was teaching at a small place in Western New York and drove, in the middle of February, 1974, to Chicago to meet and interview Uncle Milty at his apartment. I had along Professor Ralph Raico and we were joined also by one of Dr. Friedman’s students, Joe Cobb, and the interview commenced. It went on for several hours and when we finished we were exhausted from a most exhilarating exchange with a very intellectually agile and superbly educated scholar.
In the course of the interview we argued a good deal, exploring various approaches that one might take to understanding human affairs and the best economic system that would serve people anywhere and everywhere. While in broad agreement, there were certain matters on which there were some differences among us and I, especially, had a very intense exchange with our interviewee on the topic of whether it is possible for people to know what is right versus wrong ethical conduct. One of the most memorable points made by Friedman was this: "I think that the crucial question that anybody who believes in freedom has to ask himself is whether to let another man be free to sin. If you really know what sin is, if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, then you could not let another man sin. You have to stop him." "Interview with Milton Friedman," Reason, December 1974, p. 5. He, of course, held that no one could know when another sinned or did something morally wrong. I disagreed with this and we went a few rounds before moving on to other topics.
Over the years that I have taught and written quite extensively on the subject of business ethics, I have always presented my students with one of Uncle Milty’s most widely reprinted and relatively nonacademic essays from 1961, one that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, addressing the topic of corporate moral responsibility. His essay put on record one of the most uncompromising defenses of economic liberty, rejecting the notion popularized by Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others, that business corporations must serve various social purposes and not the goals of those who own them. Although here, too, I was not in full agreement with him, Dr. Friedman held that managers must serve no other goals at all but those the owners designate—which is mostly to pursue the prosperity of the enterprise, or profit—and to do otherwise is to betray a trust the owners extend to managers who voluntarily come to work for them. (Uncle Milty told me and some others at Chapman University, on the occasion of the unveiling of his bust some years ago on the promenade of the campus, that, ironically, this essay of his brought him more royalties that any other piece he wrote in his long career.)
A few years later I had the good fortune of spending a year at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where Dr. Friedman had just started as a Senior Fellow. During my year there I was working on a project about government regulation of business and my approach focused on the ethical dimensions of this by now well entrenched institution—in particular, how it violates certain elements of due process by imposing burdens on people in business who haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong. My way of looking at the practice did not please Uncle Milty at all—he preferred straightforward, ethically neutral economic studies, nothing that involved moral or even political evaluations which he thought could not be well grounded. I was firmly rebuked by him when my work saw the light of day and it was eventually published without his support.
Yet, for some reason Milton Friedman seemed to find some of my contributions to the struggle against statism worthwhile. So in time he and I would exchange views, in person or by mail or at some conference. At one of the latter—which he himself directed at the Silverado Ranch in Napa Valley, with the support of the Canadian free market think tank, the Fraser Institute—we spend three intense days discussing numerous aspects of the free society. We did, also, revisit our earlier debate and things become quite agitated when I once again argued that moral knowledge is possible to human beings and he disagreed, calling this a view that lacks humility. When I noted that his claim was itself pregnant with moral overtones, something of a mini-volcanic eruption occurred. But very soon after the conference I received a copy of the Hungarian translation of one of Uncle Milty’s books, on price theory, with a wonderful note saying that despite our differences, what matters most is to keep up the good fight.
Of course, these were minor encounters compared to the many in Dr. Friedman’s intellectual career but what they taught me with considerable poignancy is how important it is to keep one’s disputations civilized, how to keep one’s emotions in check as one examines even the most emotional topics in human affairs. Not only in my rare encounters with him but in all his writing and public appearances—in his many Newsweek columns, on Meet the Press, in the PBS broadcast of Friedman’s wonderful program Free to Choose, and everywhere else—there was exemplary conduct on display, the kind that too many who take part in public disputation nowadays seem to have cast aside in favor of character assassination, speculation about motivation, and imputation of ill will.
When Friedman produced Free to Choose (1980), by the way, something important emerged in how the design of the show compared with one that John Kenneth Galbraith did a little earlier, Age of Uncertainty (1977). Both of the programs focused on economics and both prominently featured the views of their hosts. However, whereas Friedman ended each installment with a half hour of debate, inviting several adversaries to challenge him, leaving the resolution of the disputes ultimately to the audience, Galbraith pointedly did not and closed with yet another reiteration of his position. (This, incidentally, prompted some at the Hoover Institution to produce a series of rebuttals to Galbraith in both book and media formats.) The episode reminded me of an exchange I once had with a prominent neo-Marxist sociologist at U C Santa Barbara. I asked him why those on the Left had the tendency to use their class room as a bully pulpit and he answered, “Well, we are revolutionaries and for us teaching is always something in the service of the revolution.”
I do not believe too many public intellectuals and academics can reach the level of decency attained by Dr. Milton Friedman. Luckily for us he left a large paper—and media—trail and millions here and abroad will be able to learn from it and maybe improve the quality of intellectual life everywhere.