Friday, November 17, 2006

Milton Friedman's positivism

By now we've all heard that Milton Friedman, one of the greatest champions of liberty in all history, died yesterday. Friedman was truly a hero, and did a great amount of good for the world. Most of the regular media coverage of Friedman that I’ve heard entirely sidesteps his economic work (various public radio reports cited "Capitalism and Freedom" and "Free to Choose" as his seminal works, for example) but no one has missed the point that he was a great and influential libertarian, who opposed the draft, activist central bank policy, the war on drugs, and government rationing of schooling. On the first two, Friedman had great and beneficial influence, and on the latter two his ideas will yet win the day.

Of course, his real achievements were in technical economics. His work on the theory of money is a extremely valuable. His work on methodology less so, and his paper on positivism is badly mistaken, I think. But on net Friedman made great contributions to positive economic theory, and for this, even more than for his libertarian policy work, "we" here at Unforeseen Contingencies remember him.

But most of all, when "we" think of Friedman, two things come to mind. The first is a short little article that appeared in the Laissez Faire Books catalog some years back on Milton Friedman’s rules for debate and argument, a list of principles with short explanations of each. I don’t have the list handy (I think I have it in my files somewhere) but what always comes to mind is that Friedman tells us libertarians we are much more likely to convert others and win arguments if we 1) remain positive and of good cheer, 2) are always respectful of our opponents, and 3) always rely on a clear understanding of the facts and the best logic we can muster.

Now this isn’t Friedman’s list; rather, it is what I learned from his list. I think of it all the time and find it extremely valuable. Friedman is right. This is the way to articulate our ideas.

The second thing that comes to mind…I never met Friedman, but did hear him speak at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vancouver B.C. I don’t remember what he said at all, although I recall being very favorably impressed. But what stands out most vividly was that I kept seeing him in the hotel hallways, walking around with his wife Rose. Everywhere and always they were holding hands, and smiling…no, grinning, as though they were having the greatest time in the world, just being together. I think when Friedman suggested we libertarians be positive and of good cheer he didn’t just mean for purposes of debate. This is the best advice on how to live.

The public radio retrospectives on Friedman all point out that early on he was regarded by much of the economics profession as a kook, and treated badly. This apparently didn't faze Friedman at all, and certainly didn't stop him. I think the Friedman approach to living and to spreading ideas --always remain positive and confident -- is a crucial part of why Milton Friedman ultimately triumphed. And it isn’t something that is gone. We should all be Friedmanites now.

I always appreciated Friedman’s attitude. Sure, he didn’t advocate a complete restoration of liberty but he did advocate big steps in the right direction. Such a person could talk to the rest of the profession and get a hearing at a time when central planning and government solutions were taken for granted.

I remember in one of the last Rukeyser shows he had Friedman and Samuelsson on at the same time. He first asked Samuelson (what an unhappy looking man!) for a policy recommendation and Samuelson said it was all about monetary policy. Rukeyser turned to Friedman and said something like, that’s what you’ve been saying all along. Friedman was grinning as usual and if it is possible, Samuelson looked even more pained.

Your story of him with his wife just completes the whole picture. What a wonderful life! What a great example!
Thanks for your comment, Jason!
The post-science ( view of Milton Friedman is “The Free Market is better than Regulation By Man-made Laws, but is not as good as Regulation By Laws Of Nature In Social Science. Having initiated the deregulation of Man-Made Laws, Dr Milton Friedman should be considered the greatest thinker of the twentieth century.”

A short essay on Laws of Nature In Social Science is presented by another student of post-science Zaman ( I appreciate your comments on my post on Dr. Friedman. [Chien Yi Lee]
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