Happy Birthday, Milton

Today is the 95th anniversary of the late Milton Friedman’s birth, and I’ll be celebrating his contribution to the school choice movement this evening in a presentation at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Washington state (to be available via live web-cast).

Here are some opening thoughts I have for that presentation:

In the spring of 1998, I was wrapping up four years of work on my book “Market Education: the Unknown History.” The publisher asked me come up with a list of prominent people who might be willing to write blurbs for the jacket, and so I sat down and mulled over the possibilities. The first name that came to mind was Milton Friedman.

I’d read Dr. Friedman’s 1954 essay on “the Role of Government in Education” and been deeply impressed by it. Of course, I didn’t seriously think that he would have the time to read a hefty manuscript by an author he’d never heard of, but, I thought, what’s the harm in trying?

In what still seems to me a minor miracle, Dr. Friedman decided to give the manuscript a read, and in doing so helped to launch my career in education policy. In fact, just weeks after I had contacted him, and before I knew what he thought of the book, I received a last-minute invitation to share the stage with him, along with his wife Rose and economist and columnist Thomas Sowell, at the gala launch event of the Milton and Rose Friedman foundation in San Francisco. Of course I was incredibly excited, not to mention moderately terrified, at the prospect.

Just as we were about to walk onto the stage at that event, Dr. Friedman leaned close to me and whispered “It’s a fine book,” but then added in a somber tone, “except where you run-down vouchers in Chapter 10.” He looked at me earnestly for a moment, and my heart nearly stopped. For a second I thought that my as-yet-unreleased manuscript was about to be carved up by a Nobel laureate economist in front of a live audience of several hundred people. Then he smiled and added, “but we can talk about that later.” And so we did, on and off, until his passing late last year.

Dr. Friedman was always quick to say that he was a monetary economist by profession, and that his interest in school choice was more avocation than vocation. But though he wrote only a few non-technical works in the field of education, he was a seminal force behind the modern American school choice movement.

To understand his impact on this field, you have to go back to the early 1950s. At that time, even more so than today, advocacy of limited government and individual liberty had been outside the philosophical mainstream. Not just outside it. Not just on the shore looking into the mainstream. But buried in the bushes entirely out of view of it.

Milton wrote of this period that “Those of us who were deeply concerned about the danger to freedom and prosperity from the growth of government, from the triumph of welfare-state and Keynesian ideas, were a small beleaguered minority regarded as eccentrics by the great majority of our fellow intellectuals.”

Consider that barely 20 years before Milton wrote his essay on “the Role of Government in Education,” the National Education Association had declared that the time had come for, quote, “the frank acceptance of the collective economy.” Not only did early 20th century education philosophers oppose the privatization of their own industry, they advocated nationalizing most of the others.

It was into this intellectual milieu that Milton ventured his modest suggestion: that the goals and ideals of “public education” would be best fulfilled though the private sector, with the government intervening, only if and as necessary, to ensure universal access to the independent educational marketplace.

Milton has passed, but that modest suggestion has become an international movement backed by an ever growing body of interdisciplinary empirical evidence.

Thank you, Milton, and happy birthday.