Milton Friedman, a Nobel Laureate in economics who died at age 94 last week, was one lucky man. That is how he saw himself, according to the memoir he published with his wife and collaborator, Rose, "Two Lucky People." But it wasn't really luck that made the diminutive Friedman (he stood 5 feet 2 inches tall) into a giant.
Friedman was the most influential economist of the last half of the 20th century. His ideas influenced presidents and prime ministers, transformed monetary policy in the United States and informed ordinary Americans' understanding of the free market.
I met Milton Friedman 16 years ago when I was asked to moderate a reprise of his popular TV series, "Free to Choose." We began shooting the new discussion series to accompany "Free to Choose" in 1990 under the direction of Bob Chitester, who had also produced the original series a decade earlier.
Since I had never met Dr. Friedman, I was invited to tea at the Friedmans' San Francisco apartment in advance of the first day's filming. I was staying a short distance away, so Rose Friedman suggested I walk rather than take a taxi, noting casually that there was a "little hill" to climb on the route from my hotel.
I arrived at the apartment huffing and puffing from the walk up the steepest hill I'd ever climbed outside the Rockies. Both Milton and Rose Friedman apparently hiked the hill on a daily basis when they were in the city, despite being nearly 80 years old at the time, while I could barely survive a single trip at half their age. They were vigorous in body and mind, as I was to discover in delightful discussions over the next week.
Unlike many famous and influential people I've met, Milton Friedman was more interested in learning about his guest than in talking about himself. He wanted to know how I had come to abandon liberalism, since he knew I had worked for a legendary union president, the American Federation of Teachers' Al Shanker, whom he had debated on the original "Free to Choose" series. I explained that foreign policy had driven me from the Democratic Party but that I had also come to favor more conservative economic policies.
"I have to write a check every quarter to pay my taxes because I'm self-employed," I said. "If more Americans had to do that instead of having the money automatically deducted from their paychecks, people would quit thinking of taxes as the government's money rather than their own. We'd have a huge tax revolt," I asserted.
Suddenly I heard Rose's voice from the kitchen. "See, I told you what mischief you were causing," she hollered, as Milton broke into a deep-throated laugh.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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