All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1999

Two Lucky People

An Easygoing Narrative

I still remember, after more than 30 years, my mounting excitement as I read Capitalism and Freedom for the first time and discovered the wondrous moral and economic benefits of being “free to choose.” Reading it changed my professional life. Here was solid economic reasoning, but economics with a heart, and—unbelievably—economics that was exciting. All my subsequent economic thinking has been driven by this experience. While I eventually wandered off the Friedman reservation, I still have a warm feeling for the book and author who started it all for me.

Two Lucky People, the memoirs of Milton and Rose Friedman, is not a work primarily focused on economic theory or policy. The book assumes that readers are familiar with the Friedmans’ economic ideas, although it does provide summaries and defenses of many of their positions. Rather, Two Lucky People is an easygoing narrative of the experiences of a happily married couple, with some sections written by each individually and others by the two combined.

The Friedmans clearly qualify as a traditional family unit, with Milton the primary breadwinner and Rose focusing on homemaking. Milton, despite his obvious affection for his wife and family, is drawn back time after time in his account to his professional experiences and economic ideas. Rose, despite her obvious competence and interest in economics, is drawn back to the family and its experiences. It is heartwarming to see a couple of such extraordinary intellectual ability experiencing the ups and downs of daily life.

As Rose and Milton carry us through their lives and careers, they provide us with glimpses of many of the greatest and not so great economists of the twentieth century. Their reminiscences demonstrate that personal foibles and prejudices exist among the intellectual elite as surely as in the general population. Some instances are touching; others produce a sense of revulsion.

Examples of the latter include the anti-Semitism encountered by the Friedmans in academia in general, faculty cliquishness that escalates into personal animosities, and the incredible close-mindedness of leftists to the failures of socialism.

Milton also provides us with interesting portraits of the presidents he advised. No one should be surprised at the picture of Richard Nixon as having a powerful intellect and vast knowledge, but often carrying out policies he knew were socially undesirable in pursuit of short-run political advantage. Friedman’s admiring portrait of Ronald Reagan shows much more respect for his intellect than most Washington commentators.

Of interest is the section devoted to the evolution of the “Free to Choose” television series, especially the resistance encountered from leftists within the public television establishment. While pressure from sponsors and other sympathizers eventually forced almost all public stations to show the series, there was much opposition, as exemplified by the decision of the New York station to run the show’s initial program opposite the Super Bowl.

Today, when the Friedmans’ ideas are almost mainstream intellectually (if unfortunately not in policy), it is hard for many of us to remember (and for younger people to have any notion of) the long-term resistance they faced. For many years the Duke University library carried none of Milton Friedman’s books because of faculty hostility to his ideas. At the same time, the library had a complete collection of the works of Karl Marx. When Capitalism and Freedom was published in 1962, it was reviewed in almost no general publications—even though it was obviously aimed at a broad audience and Milton was already known internationally.

Rose and Milton present all this information about their lives with a minimum of malice. The dominant tones of the book are optimism and pride. A sense of vindication is evident: the free market is winning the battle of ideas and ultimately will win the battle over policy. As Milton stresses, advocates of the free market are inherently patient, long-term thinkers. He is perfectly willing to be judged by the economics profession and others 25 to 50 years in the future. He is confident, and surely with good reason, that his work in positive and normative economics will stand the test of time.

Bill Field is a professor of economics at Nicholls State University.

  • Milton Friedman (1912-2006), recipient of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.