08/05/2012 10:59 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2012

Think Again: Thoughts on Milton Friedman and Gore Vidal

Two leading intellectuals of the 20th century now share a birth and a death date. The conservative economist, Milton Friedman, who died in November 2006, would have been 100 years old on Tuesday. A different death in the news this week was that of the novelist, literary critic, and all-around troublemaker Gore Vidal, who has almost no political legacy, as he could not be bothered to take politics as seriously as he took literature. I got to know Friedman mostly through his work and from biographies of him, though I spent an enlightening week with him when we shared time on a cruise ship to Alaska in 1996. I knew Vidal considerably better, having jousted with him on numerous occasions over the years, which prompts me to consider their legacies on this week of their deaths.

A lengthy explanation of Milton Friedman's life's work and extraordinary influence can be found here. The conservative economist Thomas Sowell has written an appreciation of him here, as well. Though also a Nobel Laureate economist, Friedman's greatest talents, as Sowell notes, were in being a popularizer of right-wing and radical libertarian ideas. "Most people would not be able to understand the complex economic analysis that won him a Nobel Prize, but people with no knowledge of economics had no trouble understanding his popular books like Free to Choose or the TV series of the same name."

In this regard, Sowell explains, "in being able to express himself at both the highest level of his profession and also at a level that the average person could readily understand, Milton Friedman was like the economist whose theories and persona were most different from his own -- John Maynard Keynes."

An economist version of Ayn Rand, Friedman argued that, "Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself." He believed in the power of ideas to move society. He hurled himself at the conventional wisdom of his day with popular tracts relentlessly attacking the notion of positive government interference in the economy, beginning with Capitalism and Freedom in 1962 and sustaining this consistent line through the bestselling election-year tracts Free to Choose (1980) and The Tyranny of the Status Quo (1984), both co-authored with his wife, Rose.

Friedman's ideas were generally considered beyond the pale of reason when he began his attack on the Keynesian orthodoxy -- he was the only economic advisor to Barry Goldwater in 1964. Through his Newsweek column, along with his bestselling books, television series, and think-tank appointments (particularly the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution), this bald, diminutive, ghetto-born Jewish professor managed to re-educate a nation on the principles of economic theory. In time, he established himself as perhaps the single most influential economic theorist since Karl Marx. As his intellectual adversary John Kenneth Galbraith puts it, "The age of John Maynard Keynes gave way to the age of Milton Friedman."

I got a chance to spend some time with Friedman back in 1996 when The Nation sent me on a weeklong cruise to Alaska sponsored by National Review magazine. (I wrote about it back then, and I'm borrowing at bit from it for this column; some other parts of the text below are from my first book, Sound & Fury, The Making of the Punditocracy, originally published in 1992.) We did a lot of arguing together, often in front of an impromptu audience on the boat -- with absolutely everyone rooting for the other guy.

It was a lot of fun. Similar to his wife and frequent co-author, Milton was barely five feet tall, if that. Being a respectful young man, I listened to him expound on the great equalizing forces of the "invisible hand." In a discussion of Vietnam and globalization, he demanded, "Is anyone forcing those Vietnamese to work in Nike factories at the point of a gun?"

One of the craziest things I thought he said to me that week was when he insisted that he did not at all believe in public education. I said I thought this was a bit hypocritical, since he had received one, and it had allowed him to grow up to be the most influential public intellectual in the country, if not the world. I forget what his response was, but later during the cruise we got into a discussion about whether capitalism was "good for the Jews." Friedman pointed to his wife, himself, and me, and explained, "Well, it's been good for all three of us, and we're all Jews."

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