A great man

DAVID WARREN

Milton Friedman and his wife Rose, the pair of them — diminutive octogenarians from Chicago — were like a couple of fresh-fallen teen-aged lovers, doting and inseparable, often holding hands. Even in their mid-eighties, they left an impression of guileless youth.

Rose and Milton Friedman

After Friedrich Hayek, I think he was the 20th-century economist in whom I reposed most trust: one of the few who rise above the surface noise of economic events to see a large, essentially moral, landscape.

He was part of our inheritance from Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment; for if you consult The Wealth of Nations (a book more praised and damned than read), you will be reminded that the man who “discovered” the first principles of capitalism did so out of a native curiosity about why human societies work at all. Adam Smith, and his legitimate descendents, were men capable of bold, and very acute, generalizations; not mere statistical wizards. See especially the earlier sections in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, which deal with defence, justice, education — on e.g. the need to inculcate such virtues as courage in the body politic.

Friedman was a man in that tradition, and like his ultimate intellectual master, never an ideologist, nor a front man. He followed an argument wherever it led, and spent more of his time lobbying against the old military draft in the U.S., or later in favour of school-voucher programmes, than he ever spent advising three Presidents on the macroeconomic facts of life. Friedman held, for instance, that anti-drug laws were effectively a government subsidy on organized crime. He was hardly a Republican party hack.

He espoused, to my mind, the sort of libertarianism that is worth engaging, the kind that insists on looking at the evidence from human affairs, and analysing real institutions, rather than prescribing by rote from principle. He had no lasting interest in grand theory, made all his own preferences and assumptions perfectly plain, and never wrote the sort of chef-d’oeuvre by which we remember most dead white males.

To my taste, Friedman took this insistence on what I’ll pretentiously call “the priority of the visible” a little too far — and I prefer Hayek’s more European sense of things under, as well as on, the table. Hayek, though he rejected the label “conservative”, had the old Tory’s indulgence for long-established customs, that may answer to the deepest needs in men and women. He appreciated things that remain invisible in daylight, but whose shapes become apparent in the dark. Friedman, an American optimist, didn’t believe in goblins.


The pair of them — diminutive octogenarians from Chicago — were like a couple of fresh-fallen teen-aged lovers, doting and inseparable, often holding hands. Even in their mid-eighties, they left an impression of guileless youth.


I spent an afternoon with Milton Friedman, and his wife Rose, and Michael Walker (the founder of the Fraser Institute), in a tea shop in Whistler, B.C., almost a decade ago. The pair of them — diminutive octogenarians from Chicago — were like a couple of fresh-fallen teen-aged lovers, doting and inseparable, often holding hands. Even in their mid-eighties, they left an impression of guileless youth. Both were economists, both passionate, seemingly naive idealists for free markets and free men. But with a wonderful ability to pull paradoxical ideas out of the air, that followed from the simple ones they started with.

Incredibly generous with their time, and humour; humble to a fault. Happy people. When Michael or I would mention something horrible happening in the world, there’d be a moment of hesitation, then one or the other of them would pipe up to mention all the new and positive opportunities created by that latest disaster — in the course of which they'd show they had already discussed between them in detail, and from alternative angles, something we had only spotted in a newspaper. They also seemed to know almost everything there was to know about Canada, and about Whistler, B.C. But wanted to know the rest.

When I would come up with one of my more fanciful suggestions for turning the world inside out, they would praise it before charitably ripping it to pieces, quoting statistics by the yard. They would make excuses for their worst enemies; they would explain the intellectual milieux from which each idiot had emerged; and always accept the idiot's right to an opinion. They were just the most cheerful, decent people you could imagine, tingling with alert intelligence.

And exemplars of the broadest “family values”: maternal and paternal, respectively, towards even the servers replenishing our tea. Rose had one of the waitresses showing her pictures of her family. Americans, in the most beautiful way. And Jewish: wonderfully Jewish.

A very great man and his very great wife. One thinks at such times of the human dimension; and I think of Rose. She will have a million messages from well-wishers, but no Milton to share them with.

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David Warren. "A great man." Ottawa Citizen (November 19, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.

THE AUTHOR

David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled — especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.

Copyright © 2006 Ottawa Citizen


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