When Milton Friedman received the Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2002, President George W. Bush quipped that his wife Rose was the only person ever to have won an argument against her husband. Having spent many days with both Friedmans, I can testify that the president was right on the mark. Indeed, while Milton Friedman was the smartest and quickest debater one could hope to meet, Rose was not impressed. All along the nearly 70 years of their marriage (I knew them over the last 25 years), one would not have a serious discussion with Milton unless Rose, too, was present, ready to support or contradict his arguments. Milton listened carefully to her sometimes contrary views and in fact eagerly sought them. Rose’s opinion was Milton’s ultimate test. As an intellectual powerhouse of two, however, they shared the same basic worldview.
Rose, also an economist, was no less radical than Milton in her support for free-market solutions and stressing of the importance of individual responsibility. The Rose and Milton Friedman Foundation for school vouchers came about at Rose’s initiative. Together, she and her husband co-authored three major books that go beyond economic theory: they explain the political and personal philosophy behind free markets.
Free to Choose (1980), first a book and eventually a televisions series, may have been the most ambitious endeavor of our time: to teach economics to ordinary people and convey the superiority of the free market in an understandable and accessible vocabulary. The series achieved success and influence worldwide, with the exception of France, where it was not even shown. Rose was unhappy about that, while Milton concluded that the French were unrepentant socialists. The global free-market revolution of the 1980s owes a lot to Free to Choose, however, and to Rose and Milton’s charisma as TV personalities.
In Tyranny of the Status Quo (1984), the couple explained how lobbies and organized interests held the upper hand in resisting and quashing reforms, from economic policies to school vouchers. The would-be beneficiaries of such reforms—individuals without institutional backing—were not able to defend themselves or fight effectively for their interests. This may be the only pessimistic book Rose or Milton ever wrote. If they were still with us, no doubt they would lead the fight against national health care.
The Friedmans’ memoir, Two Lucky People (1999), which they wrote in their eighties, is a wonderful book that owes more to Rose than to Milton. It explains the rationale behind their scientific work and political activity. For them, economics was not a “dismal science” at all; its purpose was to make people happy. While happiness cannot be quantified, the Friedmans believed that freedom fosters more happiness. The greatest virtue, then, of free markets—or of school vouchers, which operate on the same principle—is that they provide a wider array of choices.
The Friedmans’ happiness thesis also incorporates their personal experience. Having lived long enough, they could compare various stages of American social life. They found that when the government encroached less on people’s lives, the country was safer. Americans behaved more responsibly and took more individual initiative. Rose and Milton were not waxing nostalgic: they were, above all, freedom fighters, dedicated to a better future for everyone.
As Rose was so much involved in the intellectual and political life of her time, some wondered how she found the time for cooking. She didn’t. Take-out orders were a staple at the couple’s San Francisco home or their summer place at Sea Ranch (on the Northern California coast) as well. When ordering pizza or Chinese food, Milton and Rose would argue about price and service to reach the most rational choice. They were two lucky people, indeed, and their guests were lucky, too. Now we need to continue their good fight.