In Search of Milton Friedman

The new edition of Econ Journal Watch has a wonderful symposium on Milton Friedman entitled “Why No Milton Friedman Today?” (h/t Marginal Revolution). Some of the essays argue that Friedman’s influence was possible, in part, because the profession itself was less specialized and less technical. As Richard A. Epstein notes:

Once the level of sophistication goes up in any field, specialization starts to exert its influence. Niche players claim greater expertise in particular areas, and they start to push the all-purpose stars to the side. That tendency is accentuated in economics as high-powered mathematics and large data sets gain prominence. They make it ever more difficult for any person to be expert in more than one or two subfields of inquiry.The demands of the profession influence the kinds of students who enter into it, so that free-spirited intellects like Milton Friedman are less likely to be drawn to the field than they were 100 or even 50 years ago.

Friedman’s influence may have been a product of the times. As Epstein suggests, the question that animates the symposium also asks “why there are no Keyneses, no Hayeks, no Wittgensteins, no Russells, no Eliots, or other giants who once strode the earth.”

Other essays  address Friedman’s personal attributes. David R. Henderson’s brief essay, “Why Milton Friedman was Rare,” for example, takes this approach and provides some useful insights into the man and the influence he had on the author. Henderson recalls how he first discovered Friedman as a 17-year old, after having worked through the works of Ayn Rand. A few years later, he would have the opportunity to meet with Friedman. As Henderson recalls:

Friedman had what I regard as the two main characteristics that lead to warmth: he was totally comfortable in his own skin, and he genuinely liked people. At age 19, a few weeks after graduating from the University of Winnipeg, I flew down to Chicago and went to his office at the University of Chicago. Friedman invited me in warmly and took about ten minutes of his time to convey two main messages to me. The first was that there’s more to intellectual life and development than Ayn Rand. The second—and these were his exact words—was, “Make politics an avocation rather than a vocation.” Then he gently escorted me to the door. But he gave a 19-year-old kid ten minutes.

The essays are brief, chocked full of personal anecdotes, and well worth a few minutes of your time.  I look forward to comparing their insights to those of a new intellectual biography of Friedman that I have on pre-order.

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