An Economist's Heart and Soul

In October 1976, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in economics to Milton Friedman. At the time, I was working at my first job out of college on the staff of the National Taxpayers Union, a libertarian lobby group in Washington, and my sister was a graduate student of Friedman’s at the University of Chicago. Hearing of this connection, my boss had an idea: send me to Chicago to get him to endorse NTU’s proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

Through the help of my sister, I was able to arrange an audience with the world’s most in-demand economist. At the appointed hour, he welcomed me into his office and listened to my proposal.

"I’m afraid not," he abruptly replied, explaining that he lent his name only to causes for which he was ready to personally involve himself. I thought our meeting was over, but he continued: "Now, tell me about yourself."

Friedman spent the next 45 minutes hearing about my plans for a career in journalism, asking probing questions and ending with a piece of firm advice: "Be a journalist first, and a libertarian second." Then he bid me goodbye and said to let him know if he could ever be of service.

That incident illustrated two things about Friedman, who died Thursday at 94: First, in his personal life, he grossly disregarded his legendary axiom that "there’s no such thing as a free lunch." He gave his time and help to many people with no thought of being compensated according to the dictates of the market, which would have put a prohibitive price on his counsel.

Second, he put far more stock in professional competence than in ideological kinship. If you wanted people to listen to your opinions, he was suggesting, you had better make sure they are worth hearing.

When I finally got a job writing commentary, I was leery of imposing on his generosity and only rarely called him to solicit his thoughts on a topic. But when I did, he always took the call, and he always asked about my sister. I would like to imagine that he was helpful only because he recognized my (and her) vast talent. In fact, he made time to counsel plenty of young and not-so-young people merely because they asked him.

That was one of the less visible ways in which he did something that few economists manage to do: put his ideas into mass circulation, where they can help alter government policy.

When I read his 1962 book, "Capitalism and Freedom," while in high school, I was a bit shocked by its boldness in making the case for economic freedom and government restraint. Among its proposals: unilaterally abolish trade barriers, replace the draft with an all-volunteer military, provide school vouchers to parents, stop trying to use fiscal policy to manage the economy, scrap occupational licensing and more.

A few years ago, a young woman working as a temp in my department had little to do and asked if she could borrow a book. After inspecting my shelves, she took "Capitalism and Freedom." On returning it, she said, "It was good, but a lot of it seems obvious."

Friedman’s ideas, however, were about as obvious as string theory when the book came out. His vision seems self-evident only because so much of it was vindicated by events. What is hard to recapture now is how lonely and embattled he was for much of his career. His success stemmed not just from intellectual acumen but from a stout willingness to be an outcast if need be.

His contributions as an economist obscure something else that was central to Friedman: promoting individual freedom. Although he is often portrayed as a conservative, he took positions that made many Republicans blanch. He advocated legalizing illicit drugs, urged the abolition of farm subsidies, favored liberal immigration policies and thought the GOP Congress needed a Democratic president to keep it in check.

He didn’t like big government crusading abroad any more than at home. Last summer he told The Wall Street Journal the Iraq war "was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America should be involved in aggression." But now that we are in Iraq, he continued, "it seems to me very important that we make a success of it."

There’s a pair of positions guaranteed to annoy just about everyone. Even in his 90s, Friedman followed his principles wherever they led. Much of the world did the same.