©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL


by Deirdre McCloskey
Eastern Economic Journal 29 (1, 2003): 143-146
Filed under brief academic items and editorials

Milton Friedman

Not Milton Berle, I mean, of course; or John Milton. But Milton Friedman, who just turned 90. Chicago gave him a birthday party at the Quadrangle Club, with a splendid miniconference attached, and all the gang was there: Anna Schwartz, for example, and Gary and Bob and the rest. I was so pleased to see old Chicago folk I hadn't seen for decades (and often more to the point, who hadn't seen me), such as Edi Karni and Jacob Frenkel; and to become better acquainted with older people who had been the heroes of my youth, such as Carl Christ of Johns Hopkins and David Meiselman of VPI and George Mason.

It's "of course" Milton Friedman to any economist in the second half of the 20th century---in the same way that "Maynard" or "Keynes" was to any economist in the first half. The contrast tells a lot about changes in economics and in the world. The thirty years 1935-1965 were dominated by the very English, Eton-graduate son of an English academic; the next thirty years were dominate by the very American, Rutgers-graduate son of Ashkenazi garment workers. Most people thought in the thirty years after 1935 that socialism was inevitable, or at least good, partly because Maynard said so; since 1965 more and more people have thought that capitalism is inevitable, or at least good, partly because Milton has said so.

I would hope to persuade people who are not fans already that Milton has been a force for good in the world. But of course it's a vain hope. You, dear reader, have already taken up a position, which is another measure of Milton's importance. If you are a Republican, say, you look with indulgence on him, and forgive him his views on recreational drugs and other consenting acts between adults. If you are a Democrat you look on him with distaste, but admit that he co-discovered (with the Democrat James Tobin) the by now wholly acceptable idea of helping the poor by giving them . . . well. . . money. . . and co-discovered (with other libertarians) the by now almost acceptable idea of freeing the poor from public school bureaucracies by giving them . . . well. . . the equivalent of money (I spoiled numerous dinner parties with non-libertarian Hyde Parkers in the early 1970s by retailing Milton's arguments for school vouchers).

If you are a man or woman of the progressive left (my Democratic friends will need to think their leftishness through) you know already that Milton is the devil incarnate. You will know for example that he is the ideological architect of the Washington Consensus: the crazy idea that governments should not debauch their currencies and corrupt their citizens (all right, to be fair: "that governments should put banks before people and should not help the poor by subsidizing electricity"). You folks on the left especially will know about Milton a lot of things that ain't so, such as that he advised the Chilean dictatorship of Pinochet. Yes, I realize the Chicago-Boys-with-Milton is the premise of numerous fine articles in the New York Review of Books. But they and you are wrong. Milton didn't do it. He has in fact been notably careful about advising any government, including even the American one since he worked as a statistician testing alloys for airframes in World War II. He was a member of the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (another of his crazy ideas that became normal); he advised Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, but always as an outsider, never (since that War experience) as a paid employee in the style of the Council of Economic Advisors. (Nor has he ever accepted government money for academic projects: no NSF grants, for example.)

Chicago had of course a connection to Chile, but Milton was not it: Al Harberger and Larry Sjaastad and Gregg Lewis were; not Milton. I, Deirdre McCloskey, probably taught more future Chilean economists associated with torturing and murdering citizens in soccer stadiums than Milton did, as did many of us, to our regret. (Yet it needs to be realized that the connection was formed originally with a free country, before Pinochet, just as Harvard had a connection with a free government in Venezuela, say, or with Pakistan before the generals, and a little after. And the economic advice that Chicago economists gave to Chile was very, very good: witness Chile now.)

Let me tell you a story about Milton's actual, revealed-preference attitude towards authoritarian governments. Sometime shortly before 1977, when Milton left Chicago for the Hoover Institution, a proposal was made to the Department of Economics to form with Iran one of those educational connections, such as we already had with (free) Brazil and (free) Chile: admit a few excellent students (in the Latin American cases from non-state universities, by the way: more detachment from government) and train a set of professors to raise Iranian education in economics to international standards. Understand, this was the Iran of the Shah (whose rule ended in 1979), and a great deal of money was to come with the deal. A professorship at Chicago might be supported, for example. The negotiations were far advanced. The central administration had signed off on the proposal. Everyone thought it was a grand idea. I did, for example, because Gale Johnson and other people I admired spoke as though it was good for the Department and the world. The proposed connection was about to be adopted by the faculty of the Department assembled on an afternoon in Social Science 105. Then Milton spoke, from one of those classroom seats with writing arms, over on the right in the front row, to this effect: "Wait a minute. We can't do this. Iran under the Shah is a dictatorship. It is not a democracy. This Department and University shouldn't get mixed up with thugs like these." End of discussion. The proposal died, because we all suddenly realized that Milton was right.

Everyone who knows Milton even a little knows he is a mensch. His goodness shows in small ways. The Great Man startles people by actually answering letters, and often reading the papers and books that must flood into his office at the Hoover Institution. I wish I was as graceful as he is. My mother raised me right, but it didn't take; Milton's mother must have been more persuasive, or as seems more plausible the student more apt. Anyway, Milton treats everyone with respect, and gives especially the intellectual's highest form of respect, willingness to argue. He is willing to argue with the obscure letter writer, the cloudy-minded fan, the most undemocratic enthusiast for the draft or the drug war, the most misled socialist (in the 1960s he kept trying to get the Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Chicago to debate him; they wouldn't).

His goodness is of course in part intellectual, even Jewish. He is a man of the book. In the Money Seminar, and anywhere else he's standing, he asks always, persistently "How do you know?" It's a terrifying question, since most of the time we can't say how we know, because we don't know. The question feels like an assault if you're not ready for it. But of course Milton is seriously curious, looking for enlightenment, ready to take this or that side in the schule (the school of Hillel might claim that inflation is a wage-price spiral; the school of Friedman claims on the contrary that inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon). I am told [How do you know, Deirdre?] that when people these days say to him how good he looks, considering he is 90, he sometimes replies sharply, "How do you know? Are you an expert in gerontology?"

The first cocktail party I went to as an assistant professor was at Bob Gordon's house, in September, I think, of 1968, and Milton was there. I remarked that professional sports was a Terrible Monopoly. Milton looked up at me and asked, "How do you know?" Gak. Uhm. Duh. I dunno: Milton told me so. But I could hardly give that answer. Yet I learned from the humiliation: to attend to how I knew. It's a very good question. Ask it of every paper you write and you'll get tenure; ask it of every paragraph and you'll become a distinguished economist; ask it, as Milton does, of every sentence you write and you can look forward to renting a tux or buying a gown for Stockholm in December.

But Milton's goodness is not only intellectual; or to be more accurate, the goodnesses are intertwined. He's hard to argue with, but never unfairly. He never cheats---as his friend George Stigler, for example, did regularly (Milton, a loving and faith-keeping man, would never agree with such a characterization of George; but even Milton makes mistakes, as about the endogeneity of the money supply). He is just. Milton cares for freedom because he puts tremendous weight on the dignity of his fellow humans. Over and over he says: Laissez faire, let the person herself decide for herself. An echt Mensch.

A personal case in point. You can perhaps understand why I tend to judge the character of people by their reaction to my gender change. It's not a comprehensive test, admittedly. But as Doctor Johnson said, "Judge ability at its best, character at its worst."

Well. Women economists have been uniformly welcoming. Thank you, Claudia, Marty, Carol, Santhi, Judith, Carmela. Most male economists are puzzled to know what the benefit of such a change is, but go along with it, sometimes uneasily, on revealed-preference and laissez-faire grounds. And many of the guys have been princely about it. At my very first visit as Deirdre to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association in late 1995 Victor Fuchs, who was the president that year, was courtly, opening doors for me in the style of older men (Anne Krueger, who was the incoming president, was of course welcoming). Stan Fischer, who had heard the news, was warmly pleasant. Al Harberger had not heard, but when I re-introduced myself with a smile he took only a long startled and amused moment to adjust, and afterwards referred to me carefully as "Deirdre" ("she" was hard that first time). And so on in other cases, much to my surprise (I had expected to have to move to Spokane and become a secretary in a grain elevator). When some years later I sat down in my first-class upgrade from Amsterdam to Chicago it took me a little while to realize that the man seated next to me was of all people Jim Heckman. We got reacquainted on the long flight, and I amended my earlier view of him as a bit of a cowboy: here was a man seriously engaged in educating himself, which is by no means as common among even eminent economists as it should be; and a man who had no problem with my life.

Only two economists (two men, need I say) have told me courageously to my face that they had a problem, one out of a deep (if in my opinion misinterpreted) orthodox Catholicism and another out of a deep (if in my opinion misinterpreted) orthodox Judaism. The non-religious economists do not it seems to me have much grounds for objecting. My ethical theory about my experience of changing gender is somewhat primitive, namely, that if it's not wrong to be a woman it's not wrong to become one. Primitive or not I don't see that outside the 613 commandments of Orthodox Judaism the theory has an answer. So I was shocked to be told a few years ago that a former colleague of mine at Chicago (one of the Nobels: that narrows it down, doesn't it?) had been sounding off at a dinner party that my change was wrong. Wrong?

But you get one guess as to Milton Friedman's reaction. Sure, sure: laissez faire. But it goes deeper than ideology, since that other former colleague at Chicago also claims to be an advocate of freedom. What did Milton do? He sent a note of support early on; and whenever Deirdre has written to him he has replied gracefully. At the birthday party he was heartily amiable, as was Rose. The family attitude comes through in Milton's son David (who was in my college class and even a housemate in the rooming house we lived in when he was a first-year grad student in physics and I in economics, but not someone I really knew). When I saw David for the first time as Deirdre last year he did not skip a beat. (You see why I am worried about my dearly beloved Chicago School, once led [nay, defined] by Milton, by Rose, and by Rose's brother Aaron Director; it's now led towards ethical and intellectual mediocrity by that other, former colleague.)

A personal goodness, even to little moi, would be of no consequence if it were not attached to his ideas. Milton has been these many decades now consequential. He exhibits the classical virtues in a life of the mind. He shows how to be courageous in adversity (for much of his career he was an outcast in economics); in personal dealing just; in companionship loving; temperate; filled with faith and hope and prudence. A very Milton Friedman.