Mary Katharine Ham

The following article is from the February issue for Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew McCarthy’s Willful Blindness:  A Memoir of a Jihad, click here

The love story of Milton and Rose Friedman is one like few others.

“During Milton’s and my honeymoon, I completed drafts of my Ph.D. thesis on the contributions to capital theory by Longfeld and Senior,” Rose once recounted.

Theirs was a marriage that was more monetary policy than mushy anniversary cards, more inflation theory than intrigue, but that didn’t keep it from being “something of a fairy tale,” in Milton’s words.

As luck and the alphabet would have it, young Milton Friedman was seated next to Rose, director in a Price and Distribution Theory class at the University of Chicago in 1932. The seating arrangement created one of the most important partnerships in the history of economics.

They were married June 25, 1938. Between that day and Milton’s death in 2006, it’s hard to overstate the impact they had on 20th-century economics and the cause of liberty, turning the first half of the century’s Keynesian statism on its head with a simple idea—“the promotion of human freedom.”

After a short period of Keynesianism for both, which they have attributed to a combination of the spirit of the times and youthful indiscretion, each embraced free-market libertarianism when libertarianism was decidedly uncool.

They believed fervently in freedom and free markets, not just for their efficiency, but for their morality. The “deregulation of industry and private life to the fullest extent possible” was their goal, and their unwavering focus on it in the big-government enamored Great Society made them an oddity.

They argued for school choice in the 1950s, were early supporters of an all-volunteer military, and argued for limitations and accountability in government spending long before the Bridge to Nowhere was a twinkle in Ted Stevens’ appropriating eye. Milton’s arguments for competition for the postal service makes him the intellectual father of FedEx.

The Friedmans persevered and eventually their original ideas and enthusiastic communication of them turned what was once deemed drastic into the eminently sensible. In the 1960s, Richard Nixon declared, “We are all Keynesians now,” as if Keynesian economics were an immutable fact of existence, but by 1980, the Friedmans had helped change the facts and what had been “radical” became the rule in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain.

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This article is from the February issue for Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew McCarthy’s Willful Blindness:  A Memoir of a Jihad, click here.

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Milton often said that economists are not made, they’re born—trained or not, there are certain people who simply understand the principles innately.

For those who aren’t natural economists, Milton and Rose Friedman were eager teachers. Their 1980 book Free to Choose was the best-selling non-fiction book of the year. Both the book and the PBS series of the same name have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

The power of their teachings lies in the Friedmans’ ability to communicate, not like academics, but like storytellers. Milton uses the simple story of a pencil’s production to explain how free markets not only “promote productive efficiency, but…foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.” He sits outside the last working one-room schoolhouse in Vermont to illustrate how loss of parental control leads to failing schools in the New England countryside and the inner city alike.

Rose, who George W. Bush once jokingly called the “only person to ever win an argument with Milton,” was co-author on several of his books and a collaborator on all of his projects. In a 2006 interview with the Wall Street Journal, they were asked whether their both being economists had helped their marriage:

Rose (nodding affirmatively): “Uh-unh. But I don’t argue with him…very much.”
Milton (guffawing): “Don’t believe her! She does her share of arguing…”
Rose (interrupting): “…and I’m not competitive, so I haven’t tried to compete with you.”
Milton (uxoriously): “She’s been very helpful in all of my work. There’s nothing I’ve written that she hasn’t gone over first.”

From their newlywed days as renegade free-market economists, studying all night and sleeping late, to their days as international celebrities and public intellectuals discussing “consumption function” by the evening fire, the Friedmans were optimistic about their mission.

Both children of Jewish immigrant families from Eastern Europe, they faced persecution both for their religious and academic beliefs, but used the freedom America afforded them to inspire dissidents behind the Iron Curtain they had escaped. After the Curtain came down, Dick Armey once asked an Eastern European leader how his country had enacted a free-market society so quickly. He responded simply: “We read Milton Friedman.”

On Milton’s 90th birthday in 2002, longtime Friedman acolyte Donald Rumsfeld offered a tribute to the couple in which he suggested that the title of their 1998 joint memoir, Two Lucky People, ought to have been reversed.

“We indeed are the lucky ones and have benefited from the lifetime of collaboration,” he said.

Milton was once asked whether there is a romantic side to the study of economics, as there is with the study of history or literature. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied, but his own story gives lie to his answer.

Once upon a time, Milton and Rose Friedman fell in love, worked hard for what they believed, and changed the world. What’s more romantic than that?

This article is from the February issue for Townhall Magazine.  To subscribe to twelve issues of Townhall Magazine and receive a free copy of Andrew McCarthy’s Willful Blindness:  A Memoir of a Jihad, click here.


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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