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Business: The Intellectual Provocateur

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REACTION to his ideas, says Milton Friedman, follows “a certain scenario.” Act I: “The views of crackpots like myself are avoided.” Act II: “The defenders of the orthodox faith become uncomfortable because the ideas seem to have an element of truth.” Act III: “People say, ‘We all know that this is an impractical and theoretically extreme view—but of course we have to look at more moderate ways to move in this direction.’ ” Act IV: Opponents “convert my ideas into untenable caricatures so that they can move over and occupy the ground where I formerly stood.”

That statement sums up Friedman. He is the rare theorist whose influence is best measured not by the devotion of his followers—though that can be extreme—but by the extent to which his ideas have altered the thinking of his opponents. The mixture of supreme self-confidence and good-humored needling expresses the personality that makes some of Friedman’s sharpest critics consider themselves close personal friends. One admirer, Labor Secretary George Shultz, quotes a former colleague at the University of Chicago as saying: “I wish I were as sure of anything as Milton is about everything.”

Friedman is a man totally devoted to ideas—isolating them in pure form, expressing them in uncompromising terms and following them wherever they may lead. His basic philosophy is simple and unoriginal: personal freedom is the supreme good—in economic, political and social relations. What is unusual is his consistency in applying this principle to any and all problems, regardless of whom he dismays or pleases, and even regardless of the practical difficulties of putting it into effect. He alternately delights and infuriates conservatives, New Left radicals and almost every group in the crowded middle road.

His son David, 24, calls him a “libertarian anarchist” who even raised his children by free-market rules. Friedman once offered David, then ten, and his older sister Janet a choice of Pullman berths for a cross-country train trip, or the extra price of those berths in cash. The children chose to sit up in coaches for two days and take the cash.

Faith in the free market has caused Friedman to condemn many Establishment institutions as monopolies. His targets include the New York Stock Exchange—in his view, a brokers’ commission-fixing cartel—and the public-school system. He contends that the Government should issue vouchers that parents could cash at any school they choose for their children. This, he says, would encourage the founding of independent schools to compete with public schools, particularly “in the ghettos where schooling now available is extremely unsatisfactory.” He believes that men who work as leaders in the free market should devote their full energies and intellect toward helping it function better, and that they should be unencumbered by outside considerations. Friedman once wrote: “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

Most forms of Government activity, Friedman holds, infringe on somebody’s liberty. For example, he opposes restrictions on cigarette advertising, which the Senate voted last week to ban from TV and radio after 1970. He thinks that the individual should decide for himself whether to choose the pleasure of smoking over the chance of a longer life; his own decision was to give up smoking a dozen years ago. The draft, in his view, is an intolerable form of compulsion. To the applause of the New Left, he has called for an all-volunteer army—not after the Viet Nam War ends, as President Nixon now proposes, but “yesterday.”

Friedman has achieved his status as an intellectual provocateur by sheer force of mind. His parents were immigrants from Ruthenia, a corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now largely part of the U.S.S.R. He sometimes speculates that if Franz Joseph had instituted a minimum-wage law, his family might have stayed put and he would be a Soviet citizen. In fact, he was born in Brooklyn and grew up on the border of poverty in Rahway, N.J. A scholarship paid his tuition at Rutgers ($300 a year). After graduating in 1932, he held a variety of teaching and research jobs in economics and mathematics, which intensified his talent for abstract thought. As a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1940-41, he so impressed a graduate assistant named Walter W. Heller that Heller led an unsuccessful campaign by a group of students to persuade the university to hire him permanently. Heller, now a frequent opponent of Friedman in debates, remains a great admirer of his technical competence.

Friedman’s life is lived largely on the lecture platform and in the classrooms at the University of Chicago. His biography consists mostly of the titles of the 14 books that he has written or coauthored; his wife Rose, an economist herself, is his editor. For all his love of books and ideas, however, he will drop everything to visit the circus, his secret passion. He also exercises his analytic faculties by building things with his hands—including a color TV set that he put together last summer from a kit. Despite his highly organized mind, he is not able to keep a clean desk. David Friedman says that his father got his papers in order only once, when he spread them out over the entire surface of a pingpong table. The young man views his father as a “fulltime intellectual” whose major enjoyment comes from debate. Says David: “I was brought up with the feeling that the normal way of conversation was to argue with people.”

When he argues or lectures, Friedman can be quite engaging, using professorial wit to win over his audience. His appearance heightens the academic impression: his short frame, bald head and crooked smile give him a gnomish look. His humor relies on economic in-jokes and strategic pauses before startling conclusions. For example, Monetary Champion Friedman told his Harvard fan club last week: “I believe that fiscal policy is very important [long pause]—but not in its effect on inflation.” That cracked up the fan club.

M.I.T.’s Paul Samuelson, a leading Keynesian economist, has complained that Friedman’s students are “brainwashed” because they cannot stand up to their teacher in classroom discussion. But nobody questions Friedman’s popularity on the campus; in addition to his 30 regular students, another 100 drop in to his classes to listen. Some of Friedman’s followers do take too literally the ideas that Friedman states in extreme form partly for shock value. “That is an effective device to get people’s attention,” Friedman admits. It also adds zest to economic dialogue. Samuelson says: “To keep the fish that they carried on long journeys lively and fresh, sea captains used to introduce an eel into the barrel. In the economic profession, Milton Friedman is that eel.”

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