Business: The Intellectual Provocateur

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REACTION to his ideas, says Milton Friedman, follows "a certain scenario." Act I: "The views of crackpots like myself are avoided." Act II: "The defenders of the orthodox faith become uncomfortable because the ideas seem to have an element of truth." Act III: "People say, 'We all know that this is an impractical and theoretically extreme view—but of course we have to look at more moderate ways to move in this direction.' " Act IV: Opponents "convert my ideas into untenable caricatures so that they can move over and occupy the ground where I formerly stood."

That statement sums up Friedman. He is the rare theorist whose influence is best measured not by the devotion of his followers—though that can be extreme—but by the extent to which his ideas have altered the thinking of his opponents. The mixture of supreme self-confidence and good-humored needling expresses the personality that makes some of Friedman's sharpest critics consider themselves close personal friends. One admirer, Labor Secretary George Shultz, quotes a former colleague at the University of Chicago as saying: "I wish I were as sure of anything as Milton is about everything."

Friedman is a man totally devoted to ideas—isolating them in pure form, expressing them in uncompromising terms and following them wherever they may lead. His basic philosophy is simple and unoriginal: personal freedom is the supreme good—in economic, political and social relations. What is unusual is his consistency in applying this principle to any and all problems, regardless of whom he dismays or pleases, and even regardless of the practical difficulties of putting it into effect. He alternately delights and infuriates conservatives, New Left radicals and almost every group in the crowded middle road.

His son David, 24, calls him a "libertarian anarchist" who even raised his children by free-market rules. Friedman once offered David, then ten, and his older sister Janet a choice of Pullman berths for a cross-country train trip, or the extra price of those berths in cash. The children chose to sit up in coaches for two days and take the cash.

Faith in the free market has caused Friedman to condemn many Establishment institutions as monopolies. His targets include the New York Stock Exchange—in his view, a brokers' commission-fixing cartel—and the public-school system. He contends that the Government should issue vouchers that parents could cash at any school they choose for their children. This, he says, would encourage the founding of independent schools to compete with public schools, particularly "in the ghettos where schooling now available is extremely unsatisfactory." He believes that men who work as leaders in the free market should devote their full energies and intellect toward helping it function better, and that they should be unencumbered by outside considerations. Friedman once wrote: "Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible."

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