Sitting here reminded me of a movie. I think the title was Somebody Up There Likes Me. Well, not tonight, because I have the bum luck of speaking last, after all these brilliant gentlemen. There are just so many adjectives in my vocabulary, and so many stories that I can tell. If I were smart, I’d take a page out of Rush Limbaugh’s book and say “Ditto,” and get out of here.
But I’m here to honor these two remarkable people whose intellectual brilliance, sense of humor, and love for one another have inspired and enchanted us all.
It is often said that if you want to get across an idea, wrap it up in a person. Well, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I can’t think of two better people to wrap an idea around than Rose and Milton Friedman, two devoted partners in every sense of the word, and intellectual soulmates for nearly sixty years.
And I asked myself what is the central idea that Rose and Milton have stood for all these years? What great principle has guided their teaching, research, and writing?
Well, for me, the answer was clear. Milton and Rose, from the beginning of their careers, have been apostles of freedom—the basic freedom of individuals to order their lives and to make choices without interference by government. They have reminded us that our personal, political, and economic freedoms are inextricably linked, and that once we surrender our economic freedom for the promise of greater security through government, we will end up losing our personal and political freedoms as well. When Milton advanced this theme in the early 1960s in his great little book, Capitalism and Freedom, he was widely denounced as an alarmist. Today, of course,
this idea, thanks mainly to Milton’s tireless efforts, is increasingly embraced and appreciated both here and around the world.
Milton is not only a great economist but a courageous and innovative visionary, and he has had an enormous influence by stressing the idea that economics is a subject about freedom. It used to be called “the dismal science” by those who didn’t quite understand it. And no matter what the subject, whether it was taxes, welfare, regulation, school vouchers, or monetary policy, Milton was always ahead of everyone else. I sincerely believe that Milton, with Rose by his side, has done more than anyone else in my lifetime to enhance the understanding of economics by communicating its central ideas in a clear and cogent way.
But Milton’s contributions go far beyond the field of economics. I believe that Milton should be—and will be—recognized as one of America’s most influential proponents of human freedom. Indeed, Milton has been a true freedom fighter, every bit as important to the cause as the Minute Man, the Doughboy, or GI Joe. Of course, his battles were fought on the battlefield of ideas, but they were no less critical to the cause and his victories no less decisive.
“Ideas have consequences,” it is often said, and Milton’s ideas have had enormous consequences—witness, for example, the market revolution that has swept the world over the past two decades.
Now, of course, in the tradition of all great intellectual pioneers, Milton and Rose had to overcome formidable opposition from the flat-earth advocates of their time. When Milton joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1947, he brought with him a philosophical point of view that, to say the least, was not highly popular among some of his academic colleagues. For decades, as columnist Robert Samuelson recently wrote in the Washington Post, Milton was regarded as “a brilliant outcast,” widely dismissed as a throwback to the era of heartless capitalism. In the end, however, the sheer power of his work and his words overwhelmed the critics, and won him a Nobel Prize. And today, as we near the end of our century, Milton has moved from pariah to prophet, and has surpassed John Maynard Keynes as the most influential economist of the twentieth century.
It never mattered to Milton that the majority of his colleagues worshipped at the twin altars of socialism and state planning while he championed the cause of freedom and free markets, because his sharp intellect and unimpeachable integrity told him that the conventional wisdom would not work and could not be made to work. And, of course, he was right. Milton Friedman is living proof of the old saying that “one man plus the truth makes a majority.” He stood up to the crowd, shrugged off their scorn and insults, made his case with clarity and conviction—and he carried the day.
I must add that we would be remiss this evening if we did not give credit to the University of Chicago for providing an intellectual home for Milton and others during those long decades when these ideas were not so popular. Many other institutions, less devoted to freedom and the pursuit of the truth, would not have defended him against those who sought to silence his compelling voice. But the University of Chicago not only defended him, it did much more—it gave a home to many other great scholars like George Shultz, Ronald Coase, George Stigler, Gary Becker, and others who shared Milton’s dedication to freedom and free markets. Over the years these scholars built up a formidable structure of thinking that became known throughout the world as the “Chicago School.” While other schools worried about status, or fund-raising, or keeping up with current fads and fashions, the University of Chicago cared more about a few things that are not always popular—such as excellence, free inquiry, and the pursuit of truth.
And it was Milton’s courage and the power of his ideas that led the Public Broadcasting System to air his extraordinarily successful series, Free to Choose, which brought the magic of the marketplace into living rooms around the globe. And here, as throughout his life, Rose’s influence was critical. For she persuaded Milton that his responsibility was not just to convince economists and academicians but the people at large. And convince them he did. And, I might add that Milton’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom, continues to be a constant source of ideas and inspiration for me. And in this I know I owe a large debt of
gratitude to Rose, who Milton says in his preface “was throughout, the driving force in getting the book finished and without her it would not have been published.”
Ladies and gentlemen, how marvelous it is when two people can make such a striking difference in the world, and live to be honored for it. In this respect, Milton and Rose are “two lucky people.” But in my judgment we are really the “lucky” ones—and not just us, but also our children and grandchildren because we are all beneficiaries of the ideas they have fought for so valiantly and victoriously.
And so, what a thrill it is to be with them tonight as they approach their sixtieth anniversary together and to raise our glasses, not just to “two lucky people,” but to two genuine American heroes—Rose and Milton Friedman.