Friedman and Russia

By Illarionov, Andrei | The Cato Journal, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Friedman and Russia


Illarionov, Andrei, The Cato Journal


One day I asked Milton Friedman a question. That question was in my mind every time we met: "Could he have achieved the same status he did in America if he had lived in Russia--not only in terms of his research, but in shaping his outlook on life and in his understanding of freedom?" Having kept silent for a moment, he answered: "no."

Every time I think about his answer, two different voices start to argue inside my head. One of them is emotional and selfish and is hopeful that Friedman was wrong. And if fate was to place him in Russia, he could have achieved what he had achieved in America. He could have then made the same difference or even more. In this case I, as a Russian citizen, would have by far more chances to communicate with such a marvelous person. And my country would have a unique opportunity to grow through his knowledge. Probably in such a case my country would have been a bit different.

Another voice inside my head is rational and dispassionate and it frigidly acknowledges that Friedman was right. And that if he found himself in Russia, he would be lost to the country and the world and probably to himself as well.

Milton Friedman's death on November 16, 2006, caused a stream of comments and memorials. Independent of who wrote them, those memoirs share respectful admiration for intellectual and personal qualifies of such a remarkable person, probably the most influential economist of the last century. "There are many Nobel Prize winners in economics," said Alan Greenspan, "but few have achieved the mythical status of Milton Friedman."

Could Friedman Be a Russian Economist?

Despite political or ideological views, all commentators shared a common feeling about Milton Friedman: the world lost a great economist. And, as it was noted in mostly all eulogies, the world lost a great American economist. But why American? Why couldn't Milton Friedman turn out to be some other great economist? For example, a great Russian economist?

Undoubtedly, a genuine scientist does not belong to one country, but to all of mankind. In the world of academics and science, there are no national borders. But the country where a remarkable scientist, thinker, and creator lives and works can benefit from his genius like no other. This has less to do with a so-called national pride than with a hardly estimable contribution of a talented person to the development of his country through his presence in the country; his communication with his colleagues, students, or postgraduates; his appearances in the media; and his remarks on the important issues of the day.

In theory, Friedman could have become a Russian economist, or at least a Russian citizen, if his parents, Sarah Ethel Landau and Jeno Saul Friedman, who were born in Beregszasz, a small mostly Jewish town in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that later became Berehovo in Transcarpathian Ukraine (Friedman and Friedman 1998: 19), did not emigrate to the United States at the end of the 19th century but instead turned out to be in the former Soviet Union. Of course, as we say in Russia, history does not accept the subjunctive mood. Once something has happened, it is an undeniable fact. But still, we could try to imagine Milton Friedman's alternative life in Russia.

The honest answer to the question of whether it would have been possible for Friedman to have had the success he did if he had lived and worked in Russia is disappointing. In the last century in the Soviet Union and Russia, there were virtually no chances for some of the world's greatest creative minds to develop, prosper, or even to survive. Although the factors that determine who will be a genius are not written in stone, there are certain objective criteria that are necessary for a person to develop his talents: good family, quality of education, the nature of work, an intellectual circle of friends and colleagues, the ability to travel and to share knowledge with foreign colleagues, the ability to express one's opinion freely, an opportunity to think, and finally the society's general recognition of the scholar's talent and achievements. …

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