Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

By Cole, Julio H. | Independent Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

Cole, Julio H., Independent Review

Let us now praise famous men.

--Ecclesiasticus 44:1

Milton Friedman, who died in the early morning of November 16, 2006, was a world-famous economist and an ardent and effective advocate of the free-market economy. Much of his celebrity derived from his role as public intellectual, an aspect of his work that was reflected largely in popular books such as Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and the hugely successful Free to Choose (1980)--both coauthored with his wife, Rose, and the latter based on the television documentary of the same title--and in the Newsweek opinion columns he wrote for many years.

Although he was already well known by the time he received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, this award greatly enhanced his stature as a public figure and his effectiveness as a policy advocate, and in the vast outpouring of obituaries and public testimonials prompted by his passing, these aspects of his life and work have received the greatest emphasis.

Most professional economists (and probably Friedman himself), however, would regard another aspect of his career as far more important than his incursions in the policy arena. Indeed, even if "Friedman the public intellectual" had never existed, "Friedman the economic scientist" would still be renowned and respected (though perhaps not as a bona fide world-class celebrity), and his memory will live long in the lore of economics. In this article, I focus primarily on this other aspect of his life and work.

Education and Professional Background

Milton Friedman was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 31, 1912, the youngest child in a family of poor Jewish immigrants from Carpatho-Ruthenia (then in the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary, now part of independent Ukraine). He received his early schooling in the public schools of Rahway, New Jersey, where he grew up, and in 1928 he obtained a state scholarship to attend Rutgers University, which he entered with the intention of majoring in mathematics (his original career plan was to become an actuary). In college, however, chance intervened, as he said, in the form of "two extraordinary teachers [of economics] who had a major impact on my life": Homer Jones and Arthur F. Burns (Friedman 2004, 68). Under their influence, he switched majors from mathematics to economics.

Upon graduation from Rutgers in 1932, Friedman received two scholarship offers for graduate study, one to study economics at the University of Chicago, the other to study applied mathematics at Brown University. Both, it seems, were equally attractive: "It was close to a toss of a coin that determined which offer I accepted" (Friedman 2004, 69). In the event, he opted for Chicago and became an economist.

At Chicago, where he earned his master's degree in 1933, his teachers included Frank Knight, Lloyd Mints, Henry Simons, Henry Schultz, and Jacob Viner. (1) There, he also met two fellow graduate students, W. Allen Wallis and George J. Stigler, who would become life-long friends and colleagues. (2) His friendship with Stigler was especially significant because the Stigler-Friedman team, more than any other pairing of individuals, eventually defined and personified what became known as the "Chicago school" of economics. (3)

He went to Columbia University in 1934, where he studied mathematical statistics under Harold Hotelling and economics with Wesley C. Mitchell and John M. Clark. He later returned to Chicago as research assistant to Henry Schultz, who was then working on his massive study of empirical demand curves (Schultz 1938). (4) From 1937 to 1940, Friedman worked on analysis of income-expenditure surveys at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

At this point, it is perhaps useful to pause and reflect on this remarkable educational experience. Although it resulted from a seemingly fortuitous combination of circumstances, a program better suited to his future professional development would have been difficult to plan deliberately.

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