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The legendary economist, a champion of liberty
Question of the Day
MILTON FRIEDMAN: A BIOGRAPHY
Palgrave Macmillan, $27.95, 286 pages
REVIEWED BY DOUG BANDOW
Nobel laureate Milton Friedman did more than live: He sparkled. One of the greatest economists of the 20th century, he also was one of the greatest champions of liberty. He would have turned 95 on Tuesday.
Economist and author Lanny Ebenstein provides us with a biography of this extraordinary child of Central European immigrants. “Milton Friedman” is more than just one person’s story — it demonstrates how ideas can blossom in one man’s mind and eventually infuse the entire body politic.
Mr. Ebenstein’s research is thorough, though his style lacks Friedman’s energy, the sheer joy of intellectual combat that animated this elfin dynamo. Nevertheless, the work helps us understand what turned a bookish academic into one of America’s great public intellectuals.
Friedman was born in 1912 in Brooklyn and grew up in lean though not difficult circumstances. An avid reader, Friedman demonstrated his leadership qualities and what Mr. Ebenstein terms a “remarkably exuberant personality.”
Friedman was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling in Rutgers in 1928. He shelved his plans to become an actuary and began a lifelong affiliation with the University of Chicago when he joined its master’s program in 1932. His personal life also flourished; in Chicago he met Rose Director, a graduate student he married in 1938.
At this point longtime friend Allen Wallis described Friedman “as a Norman Thomas-type socialist.” During World War II Friedman assisted the Treasury Department in implementing income tax withholding.
But his perspective soon changed. Friedman’s talents were obvious, as was his ambition. Writes Mr. Ebenstein: “Friedman recalls [economist George] Stigler as fond of saying later, when Friedman became actively involved in politics: ‘Milton wanted to change the world; I only want to understand it.’”
Friedman actively participated in academic affairs and shaped the economic department’s direction. One of his chief causes was “positive economics,” essentially a value-free assessment of what is.
He viewed his contributions to this field as his most important economic achievement, wryly observing that he was “so happily blessed with critics that I have been forced to adopt the general rule of not replying to them.” Actually, he loved debate and never hesitated to mix it up with his opponents, though he preferred to focus on policy rather than methodology.
The 1950s featured Friedman as leading academic. He confronted the specter of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose views regarding market failure came to dominate the economics profession in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
Friedman responded with the doctrine of monetarism, emphasizing the importance of the supply of money to the economy. The issue causes many non-economists’ eyes to glaze over, but Friedman emerged triumphant. Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith concluded that “the age of John Maynard Keynes gave way to the age of Milton Friedman.”
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