There is one little puzzle we need to reflect on. Rose and Milton Friedman just published their wonderful memoirs under the title Two Lucky People. Now, at The Heritage Foundation, we don’t bestow honors on people for their luck, but rather for their achievements. If we were to take that title too literally, we might take some of the honest luster off of these two illustrious recipients tonight.
So let’s put this business of luck into perspective. When Milton graduated from Rutgers, he was offered two scholarships — one to Brown for applied mathematics, and one to Chicago for economics. It was luck, I suppose, that an influential teacher at Rutgers taught him the charms of economics. And it was luck that the Great Depression was at its depths and focused the nation’s best minds on economic problems.
In fact, if it weren’t for such luck, tonight we might be honoring one of this century’s greatest actuaries. It was also luck that in Economics 301 at the University of Chicago, Professor Jacob Viner seated his students in alphabetical order, which placed Rose Director alongside Milton Friedman, a configuration that both found so agreeable, they would maintain if for the next 66 years.
Actually, that’s how long it’s been since they first met. But just three months and three days ago the Friedmans celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and we cannot charge that off to luck. Nor can we attribute to luck anything more than a cameo role in their towering scholarly achievements.
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin notes that great discoveries which change the course of history are often negative: The earth is not flat. It is not at the center of the universe. Neither is the sun, and neither is our own galaxy. In the mode of great discoverers, Rose and Milton Friedman have contributed an impressive array of “nots” to economic theory. They postulated and proved, time and again, that John Maynard Keynes is not the center of the economic universe. They demonstrated that his theories about consumption and spending could not be confirmed. They demonstrated that the Keynesians
Like great discoverers who came before them, Rose and Milton advanced ideas that were met with anger and great resistance by their colleagues — and then somehow absorbed and accepted as conventional scientific wisdom. This is a story not just of discovery but also of stewardship over the ideal of freedom.
At the end of World War II, freedom and socialism were locked in opposition around the world, and the supporters of classical liberalism were in a very distinct minority. In 1947, Milton joined 38 other intellectuals at the Swiss village of Mont Pelerin. The gathering included such great thinkers of the 20th century as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Karl Popper. Hayek, who had assembled those 38 others, wanted to form an “international association of scholars” dedicated to “regenerating the ideas of classical liberalism … to refute socialism.”
As a result of their 10 days of meetings they agreed to gather periodically to share ideas and to advance these goals. Thus was born the Mont Pelerin Society. Professor Milton Friedman was the first American president of the Mont Pelerin Society. Earlier this month, the Society celebrated its Golden Anniversary — actually it was in our 51st year, but we celebrated our Golden Anniversary in Washington. It was my privilege during the last two years to serve as the president of the Mont Pelerin Society. About 500 scholars from the classical liberal tradition from 42 countries now belong to this society — which remains deliberately inconspicuous and yet immeasurably influential in the cause of freedom.
Most of us here tonight aren’t economists, so we cannot fully appreciate the significance of Rose and Milton’s scholarly and technical works. But it is testimony to their genius that we don’t have to. They possess that rare talent for conveying to laymen, in our own terms, the nature and value of their discoveries. And one of the absolute gems in that genre has to be Capitalism and Freedom. The book’s deep insight begins with its title, which weds an economic concept, capitalism, with a moral/philosophical concept, freedom. And the book’s content teaches us why the two cannot be divorced.
In the final pages, Milton wonders whether it is an accident that so many statist reforms of recent decades have gone awry. “Is it simply because the programs are faulty in detail?” he asks. His answer is another of those famous negatives. “I believe the answer is clearly in the negative,” he writes. “The central defect of these measures is that they seek through government to force people to act against their own immediate interests in order to promote a supposedly general interest.”
Rose and Milton carried that theme to best-selling heights in their 1980 book Free to Choose. Let me conclude by commenting not on that book’s content but on its title. Rose, you and Milton may well be “two lucky people,” but you have also been — except where government interfered — “free to choose.” Tonight is not about your luck. It is about your choices. The Clare Boothe Luce Award is a medallion of silver and gold that bears two images: the Liberty Bell, representing freedom; and a compass, representing the courses one is free to choose. Together, they symbolize a truth that Milton stated years ago, and I quote: “The really important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a society. What he should do with his freedom.”
Rose and Milton, what you have chosen to do with your freedom is beyond exemplary. Its value to our culture is beyond calculation. You are two amazing people, and we are lucky beyond description to have the privilege of claiming you as our fellow citizens. Speaking for myself personally, for the staff and the Board of Trustees of The Heritage Foundation, and I’m sure for every person in this room tonight, we give you our respect, our admiration, and our profound gratitude.