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Home » Chalk Talk – A Nobel Winner by All Accounts: Remembering Milton Friedman

November, 2006

In the few days since the world – and more specifically, the school choice community – learned of Milton Friedman’s passing at the abundant age of 94, I’ve thought a lot about the few occasions I’ve had to share a word, some thoughts, and even a few arguments with the man who was responsible for the United States’ modern embrace of free enterprise.

I didn’t always recognize the importance of Dr. Friedman’s free-enterprise philosophy in the development of a prosperous and morally sound society. In college, I was spoon-fed Keynesian economics. Still, although something never sat quite right in me with that whole approach, it wasn’t until after college, when I learned about Friedman and read his famous book Free to Choose, that I realized I’d always known him, instinctually. But I digress.

My first personal encounter with Milton Friedman was in 1991 when, from my policy analyst’s cubicle at the Heritage Foundation, I answered the phone to a rather curt sounding voice. “This is Milton Friedman,” he said. “I just read your report about the [proposed] California voucher initiative. It’s wrong. Terribly wrong.”

I had written about what would become Proposition 174, which was to be on the ballot in 1993 in California and would provide for universal vouchers, a policy Friedman, and now his namesake foundation, thoroughly embraced. I thought then – as I do now – that a more necessary, winnable, and compassionate approach was a targeted voucher program, one that helps children most in need. Friedman could not disagree more, and for years after whenever I would see him, he would – very kindly, and with warmth and intelligence – chide me for my incremental approach to reform.

That day, I told him I disagreed, and thought we’d make far more progress by being willing to face the practical realities that more than 100 years of government management of schools have dealt us, and being willing to show that choice can help those most affected by bad schools, before trying to make the logical and competitively pure step of uncontrolled choice for all. We argued for a while, and later I heard gasps from colleagues when I told them of our argument. They suggested I’d probably not been as respectful of Milton Friedman as I should have been given his enormous contributions, his intellect and the fact that he took the time to call a young policy analyst 3,000 miles away from his San Francisco home that day.

In hindsight, I saw their point. This was a man for whom principle really meant something. How rare is that individual today, in a world where we are all too often willing to concede a critical, often moral high ground, because we are too worried about the backlash, about offending someone, about being alone in our views. Friedman traveled tirelessly to preach the philosophy that he and his gorgeous and brilliant wife Rose developed and advocated so well. Despite their increasing age, they traveled the world to attract converts, funders and policymakers to their cause.

I saw Milton Friedman for the last time this past May, at a leadership conference in Mexico. He and I talked again about my passion for charter schools as one lever of choice and change for public education. “I like them,” he said. “But,” (I’m paraphrasing) “they are simply not going to change the dynamic of the public school monopoly.” I argued, again, “Charter schools will help people understand, appreciate, and embrace the power they should have to make choices in their kids lives. And maybe charters do not represent the full free market, but they will have an impact. You’ll see.” He smiled as he always did, regardless of the fact, that – like so many others to whom he unstintingly gave his time and attention – I have so much less experience and knowledge than he.

Milton Friedman is one of those people whom some of us are incredibly fortunate to meet in a lifetime who have a transforming effect on how we think and face the world. Most people will know little of him or his contribution to how we live, but based on just a glimpse of the testimonies I’ve read in the last few days I know his impact on the education reform movement will endure. People should be free to choose their schools, he said, because monopolies are inherently flawed and can never produce the quality of education that the market could provide if given the chance. Though he is right, I’m not sure we’ll ever see that kind of surrender by the system in our lifetime.

But who knows? He may be in a vastly better position now to influence that course of history. May God Bless him and his family. Rest in Peace, Milton Friedman.