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Free Minds & Free Markets

Best of Both Worlds: An Interview with Milton Friedman

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

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Some issues are open and shut. Tariffs, property rights. No, not property rights, because you have to define property rights. But education is not open and shut. In Capitalism and Freedom we came out on the side of favoring compulsory schooling and in Free To Choose we came out against it. So I have become more radical in that sense. Murray used to call me a statist because I was willing to have government money involved. But I see the voucher as a step in moving away from a government system to a private system. Now maybe I'm wrong, maybe it wouldn't have that effect, but that's the reason I favor it.

Reason: Would you agree with the proposition that you have been the most successful and important proselytizer for libertarianism?

Friedman: I don't think that I've had the most influence. I think the most influential person was Hayek. The effect of The Road to Serfdom was really critical. In another area, Bill Buckley has certainly been very important on national policy.

Buckley's not a libertarian. But he's also not a socialist. And if you look at the political scene, his National Review has had a tremendous influence in providing a base for collaboration between the libertarians on the one side and the free-market conservatives on the other. That was epitomized in its most obvious form by Frank Meyer when he was with National Review. They've helped that coalition to form and hold together and have influence; Bill Buckley played an enormously important role.

I might have more public influence than ideologues like Rand or Murray Rothbard, the libertarians in that strict sense. And I believe that the reason is because they have been so intolerant.

Reason: You wrote an essay in Liberty about the intolerance of Rand and Ludwig von Mises. You say you never met Rand....

Friedman: I was never to my knowledge in the same place as she was; I was in Chicago, she was in New York. I'm sure if I had been in New York, I would have met her. It was not because of any objection on my part. I think she was a fascinating woman and had a great influence. As I always have said, she had an extremely good influence on all those who did not become Randians. But if they became Randians, they were hopeless.

Reason: But you knew Mises personally. Did you see the intolerance that you find in his method also in his personal behavior?

Friedman: No question. The story I remember best happened at the initial Mont Pelerin meeting when he got up and said, "You're all a bunch of socialists." We were discussing the distribution of income, and whether you should have progressive income taxes. Some of the people there were expressing the view that there could be a justification for it.

Another occasion which is equally telling: Fritz Machlup was a student of Mises's, one of his most faithful disciples. At one of the Mont Pelerin meetings, Fritz gave a talk in which I think he questioned the idea of a gold standard; he came out in favor of floating exchange rates. Mises was so mad he wouldn't speak to him for three years. Some people had to come around and bring them together again. It's hard to understand; you can get some understanding of it by taking into account how people like Mises were persecuted in their lives.

Reason: You don't link yourself openly to certain aspects of the libertarian political movement....

Friedman: Well, you have to be more specific. Being very specific, I have not wanted to join the Libertarian Party simply because I have accumulated good working relationships with people in the Republican Party, and I think I can be more effective by being a Republican. That's the only reason. There are no other cases in which I have had any problem with the libertarian movement.

Reason: You certainly have a respectability and presence that most people and organizations labeled libertarian don't have....

Friedman: That's because of one thing only: I won the Nobel Prize. What, are you kidding yourself?

Reason: Your status preceded your winning the Nobel.

Friedman: I did have some of it, yes. It's because I have a firm root in something other than ideology. Because I was firmly based in a scientific academic discipline. I wasn't simply a preacher or an ideologue or an unconnected philosopher.

But I think the libertarian movement is doing fine. I think that REASON magazine has been remarkably good; it has been very effective. It takes many kinds of people to make a movement. And one of the most important things are publications. In any activity you have manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers; and all three are essential and necessary. There are only a relatively small number of manufacturers of ideas. But there can be a very large number of wholesalers and retailers.

As I look around me I'm impressed by the fact that there's increasing attention paid to libertarian ideas. If you look at the picture now, compared with 30 years ago, there's no comparison. Now you've got much more. As far as journals are concerned, then we had the Foundation for Economic Education's Freeman; for a while we had the New Individualist Review in Chicago, but that was about it. Bill Buckley established National Review, which is in a different corner.

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