Best of Both Worlds

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

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Ayn Rand was receiving increasing attention at that time. I believed a big upsurge in the libertarian philosophy and views was pending. And to some extent it was. You had the Randian group, and the Murray Rothbard group. But the developing libertarian movement was repressed by the Vietnam War and what it led to. You've only got room for one big movement at a time.

Reason: Why do you think you had more initial success as a public proselytizer--you had a regular column in Newsweek--than other prominent libertarians?

Friedman: I really don't know how to answer that. I was basically trained in economic science. I was interested in the history of thought and where it came from. I thought I was going back to some fundamentals rather than creating anything new. Ayn Rand had no use for the past. She was going to invent the world anew. She was an utterly intolerant and dogmatic person who did a great deal of good. But I could never feel comfortable with her. I don't mean with her personally--I never met her personally. I'm only talking about her writings.

Rothbard was a very different character. I had some contact with Murray early on, but very little contact with him overall. That's primarily because I deliberately kept from getting involved in the Libertarian Party affairs; partly because I always thought Murray, like Rand, was a cult builder, and a dogmatist. Partly because whenever he's had the chance he's been nasty to me and my work. I don't mind that but I didn't have to mix with him. And so there is no ideological reason why I kept separate from him, really a personal reason.

Reason: In seeing yourself as harkening back to 19th-century liberalism, you never became a system-builder like Rand or Rothbard....

Friedman: Exactly. I'd rather use the term liberal than libertarian.

Reason: I see you occasionally use the word libertarian.

Friedman: Oh, I do.

Reason: As a concession to accepted usage?

Friedman: That's right. Because now liberal is so misinterpreted. So I am a Republican with a capital "r" and a libertarian with a small "l." I have a party membership as a Republican, not because they have any principles, but because that's the way I am the most useful and have most influence. My philosophy is clearly libertarian.

However, libertarian is not a self-defining term. There are many varieties of libertarians. There's a zero-government libertarian, an anarchist. There's a limited-government libertarianism. They share a lot in terms of their fundamental values. If you trace them to their ultimate roots, they are different. It doesn't matter in practice, because we both want to work in the same direction.

I would like to be a zero-government libertarian.

Reason: Why aren't you?

Friedman: Because I don't think it's a feasible social structure. I look over history, and outside of perhaps Iceland, where else can you find any historical examples of that kind of a system developing?

Reason: One could argue the same thing about minimal-state libertarianism: that historically it seems to not be stable.

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