Honoring Milton Friedman

by TNR Staff | January 29, 2007

by Richard Stern

I've just come from Rockefeller Chapel, the huge, beautiful 20th-century Gothic chapel which was the last great gift of the Rockefeller family to the university whose founding constituted the first major charity of this most famous charitable family in U.S. history. The service this afternoon honored another University of Chicago saint, the brilliant economist Milton Friedman, who may be said to have been the most influential of all its faculty members. His influence, intellectual and personal, two sides of the Friedman coin, was celebrated by five people whose lives he re-energized and by the new president of the university who ended his excellent, if standard, remarks by reading a conventional, if lengthy, letter signed by George W. Bush and a more personal and thus telling letter from Alan Greenspan recalling among other things how Milton faced down General Westmoreland in a debate about the volunteer army (Westmorland wanted the draft to continue) and then convinced the then-secretary of defense that such an army would be the form the American military should take. "That day, the pen was clearly mightier than the sword," wrote Greenspan. Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, then told how reading Friedman in the dark days of Soviet controlled Eastern Europe ignited his intellect and spirit, how, years later, he visited Chicago simply to see where this great man had walked, and years after that was able to reform his country's finance along the lines of the free market. He was followed by Leo Melamed, founder and former head of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, who told how this open market treatment of currency as if it were pork bellies or soy beans broke through the opposition of almost everyone because Friedman not only agreed with it but for a $7,500 fee ("I'm a capitalist," he told Melemed who insisted that Friedman "put into writing" what he'd just told him) wrote the eleven page paper which turned the world tide in its favor. Arnold Harberger, Friedman's one time student and longtime colleague, spoke movingly about Friedman, dwelling on the Friedmans' seven day visit to Chile in 1975 which were to bring Friedman years and years of contumely although three of his five speeches dwelt on political freedom growing inevitably out of the economic freedom which was soon put into place by the Pinochet government. Michael Walker, who runs the Rose and Milton Friedman Foundation, followed with a slightly hagiographic devotion to the great man, and finally, Gary Becker, perhaps Friedman's single most productive and brilliant student, followed with a moving account of his first meetings with Friedman, including Friedman's exposure of the weakness of some of Becker's class responses and then of the initial draft of what became Becker's pioneering book on discrimination. He ended with an amusing account of driving with Friedman and consistently missing the correct exit because of the intensity of their discussion. (The last time this occurred was but a few months before Friedman's death last month at the age of 94.) Such services as these are important at a university which prides itself--sometimes a bit too loudly--on its special character as a place where what counts above all else is the truth and damn whatever stands in its way, including at times, decorum and graciousness. It turned out that every one of the six speakers made a point that this most intense knight of the truth was himself an absolute model of amiable decency whose worst foes, once they knew him, were disarmed into friends. The celebration of Milton's tolerance of human beings (not of poor thinking or ideas), his lack of interest in the rank of an idea's champions (a cabbie did as well as a prime minister), his courage in defending his ideas even when they were scorned or ridiculed by almost everyone, his lack of vainglory when he was finally recognized as the great thinker he was became the ground bass of the whole occasion. In the gorgeous chapel, built from the profits of America's most famous capitalist, they acquired the kind of beauty which Friedman once said, using the words of the poet Keats (who lived 70 fewer years than the economist who quoted him), price theory had for him: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That's all ye know and all ye need to know."

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