Best of Both Worlds

Milton Friedman reminisces about his career as an economist and his lifetime "avocation" as a spokesman for freedom.

(Page 3 of 8)

Throughout my career, I spent most of my time on technical economics. This policy stuff has been a strict avocation. If you really want to engage in policy activity, don't make that your vocation. Make it your avocation. Get a job. Get a secure base of income. Otherwise, you're going to get corrupted and destroyed. How are you going to get support? You're only going to get support from people who are ideologically motivated. And you're not going to be as free as you think you're going to be.

One of the most important things in my career is that I always had a major vocation which was not policy. I don't regard what I've done in the field of monetary policy as on the same level as what I've done about trying to get rid of the draft or legalizing drugs. One is a technical byproduct of scientific work, and so that's the only sense in which my vocation has affected my policy. But by having a good firm position in the academic world, I was perfectly free to be my own person in the world of policy. I didn't have to worry about losing my job. I didn't have to worry about being persecuted.

I think you'll make a mistake if you're going to spend your life as a policy wonk. I've seen some of my students who have done this. And some of them are fine, and some of them, especially those who have gone to Washington and stayed, are not.

Reason: How did you come to enter the world of policy writing?

Friedman: What really got me started in policy and what led to Capitalism and Freedom was, in an indirect way, the Mont Pelerin Society. The first Mont Pelerin Society meeting was in 1947 in Switzerland. Hayek arranged it. It was his idea.

Mont Pelerin was the first time that I came into contact with people like Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and the European contingent of that time. That widened my perspective about issues and policy.

The Mont Pelerin Society was people who were deeply concerned about issues. It was people with whom you shared a basic common belief, who at home were isolated. Its great contribution was that it provided a week when people like that could get together and open their hearts and minds and not have to worry about whether somebody was going to stick a knife in their back--especially for people in countries where they were isolated.

The reason the Society ever happened was that Hayek had written The Road to Serfdom, which attracted the attention of the Volker Foundation, and it was the Volker Foundation that financed the American participation in the Mont Pelerin Society. A Swiss group financed the Swiss and European participation.

In the middle '50s, the Volker Foundation undertook a program of summer institutes for junior academics who were favorably inclined toward a free-market point of view or were interested in such issues. Capitalism and Freedom was based on a series of lectures that I gave at one of those seminars. Those seminars forced me to systematize my thoughts and present them in a coherent way. And they also provided a very good audience because the people who were there were lively, outspoken, didn't hesitate to criticize. It was a very good audience. There was a lot of free time as well for discussions outside of the formal seminar. And I learned a great deal, not only from the students who were there, but also the fellow lecturers.

And then my wife, Rose, took the transcribed tapes of the lectures and reworked them and that's what became Capitalism and Freedom.

Reason: Did you have any hesitation about publishing that book?

Friedman: None whatsoever. Why should I have had any hesitation? Remember, I was a tenured professor.

Another thing that helped form my policy orientation was when Hayek came to Chicago in 1950. He attracted quite a number of very able students, Sam Peltzman, Ron Hamowy, Ralph Raico, Shirley Letwin. There were quite a group of them. Hayek drew very high quality people. I was an adviser to their New Individualist Review and contributed articles to it. They were a very lively group that had organized discussion sessions and so on, which was part of the atmosphere.

I was persuaded at that time in the early 1960s that we were on the verge of developing a strong libertarian movement. These were libertarians, all of them, though Hayek would not have labeled himself a libertarian. As you know, he always avoided the term conservative, too. He would call himself an Old Whig. The others would have called themselves libertarians.

That's how I was able to develop my own ideas. What shaped them was the interaction with all these other people at lunches and dinners and lectures.

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