In October 1976, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in economics to Milton Friedman. At the time, I was working at my first job out of college on the staff of the National Taxpayers Union, a libertarian lobby group in Washington, and my sister was a graduate student of Friedman's at the University of Chicago. Hearing of this connection, my boss had an idea: send me to Chicago to get him to endorse NTU's proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
Through the help of my sister, I was able to arrange an audience with the world's most in-demand economist. At the appointed hour, he welcomed me into his office and listened to my proposal.
"I'm afraid not," he abruptly replied, explaining that he lent his name only to causes for which he was ready to personally involve himself. I thought our meeting was over, but he continued: "Now, tell me about yourself."
Friedman spent the next 45 minutes hearing about my plans for a career in journalism, asking probing questions and ending with a piece of firm advice: "Be a journalist first, and a libertarian second." Then he bid me goodbye and said to let him know if he could ever be of service.
That incident illustrated two things about Friedman, who died Thursday at 94: First, in his personal life, he grossly disregarded his legendary axiom that "there's no such thing as a free lunch." He gave his time and help to many people with no thought of being compensated according to the dictates of the market, which would have put a prohibitive price on his counsel.
Second, he put far more stock in professional competence than in ideological kinship. If you wanted people to listen to your opinions, he was suggesting, you had better make sure they are worth hearing.
When I finally got a job writing commentary, I was leery of imposing on his generosity and only rarely called him to solicit his thoughts on a topic. But when I did, he always took the call, and he always asked about my sister. I would like to imagine that he was helpful only because he recognized my (and her) vast talent. In fact, he made time to counsel plenty of young and not-so-young people merely because they asked him.
That was one of the less visible ways in which he did something that few economists manage to do: put his ideas into mass circulation, where they can help alter government policy.