Colleagues in the American Center for School Choice have convinced me to add a more personal note to my recent 100th birthday blog about Milton Friedman. They ask that I describe my connections with – and occasional disconnections from – the great man. I am honored to be consulted and hope to contribute light sans heat. Though there is no avoiding one’s perceptions of human limits, correct or otherwise, my aim here will be neither to praise Caesar nor to pester him. Our 40-year acquaintance centered on a very public issue – that of subsidized school choice. The civic importance of this question justifies a story or two and, inevitably, a rough and rambling interpretation of our own relationship.
These stories could bear on the historic and continuing question of whether Friedman’s free market style of argument was the most efficacious to advance his own project. It is just possible that his prodigious contribution might best be honored today by considering a shift in the civic and moral mood music supporting our common pursuit of genuine authority and responsibility for less well-off parents.
Milton and I met a half-century ago in Chicago. He taught economics at UC; I taught law at Northwestern. He was maybe 18 years my senior. Milton became a frequent guest on my weekly (unsponsored, largely unheard) radio talk show. Over the air, the two of us would argue about appropriate government responses to the various challenges posed by the young and diverse civil rights movements.
In 1962, I had written what became a controversial report on racial segregation in Chicago public schools for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. My head was bursting with solutions for our educational calamities. These solutions included vouchers, but soon it was clear that I was bit more inclined than he toward government guardianship of equal access for poor and black families to schools that would participate in any subsidized system of choice. Milton was opposed to most of what seemed to me rather modest commitments by the school. He was confident that subsidy plus an unfettered market offered the best long-term protection for our civic values.
I think we liked each other. Milton was a tough guy and could be intimidating. Others may recall his classic trick of breaking into the middle of the opponent’s argument with “Excuse me,” and then proceeding to turn the conversation in whichever direction he preferred. But I never felt personally beset. When, later, he became a TV personality (the late ‘70s), Milton, to my glad surprise, invited me to represent the pro side in a TV debate on vouchers. The opponent was, like Milton, my sometime friend—the formidable Albert Shanker. It was fun and altogether coherent.
By then we had both moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I was pushing a popular voucher initiative that Steve Sugarman and I had designed; I was confident that my Friedmanic connection would generate financial support from business folk. We wined and dined with Rose and Milton and their admirers; we invested precious time and what was, for us, considerable capital in the campaign. In the end, to our surprise, Milton successfully urged our targeted business angels to wait for a more appropriate—i.e., less regulated—proposal. They took his advice. We bit the dust.
This turn of events was a bit difficult to digest.
Steve and I had at last gotten used to the bitter enmity of the teachers union’s leadership. Now we found ourselves foes as well of the true-blue economic liberal. Only very recently has life ceased being quite so lonely here in the ideological center. Perhaps our experience was a forecast of the general evacuation of the center that still hinders dialogue in our own time. We’ll get over it. School choice politics itself has nearly done so.
Around 1978, with Milton’s encouragement, true-blues around the country began to run their own “pure” unregulated voucher initiatives. In California, first in 1992, then in 2000, Steve and I were invited by Milton’s cadre to join in support; some of our centrists actually did so. Steve and I felt responsible to oppose and did so publicly. Each of the California efforts was crushed by a 70 percent opposition of voters; almost exactly that same reception awaited the 10 similar voucher initiatives that sprinkled the country from 1988 to 2000. Today this 30 percent ceiling of support still confronts the libertarian style of reform. Wisely, the market folk have given up on the popular initiative. But it just could be that a centrist proposal, put to popular vote, might attract the other 21 percent.
During these two decades of flat-out failure for libertarian solutions, Milton did what he could to keep centrists out of the game. My best example: in the early ‘90s, he wrote a 3-page letter to John Walton exposing me as an “egalitarian.” He cautioned Walton against investing in such heresy. How do I know this really happened? Milton himself mailed me a copy. No sneak he. By the way, the great John Walton, just before his death helped underwrite the major centrist convention at Napa that, in due course, was to morph into the co-host of this blog – the American Center for School Choice. I once had the satisfaction of hearing John, speaking at a conference on choice, identify me as his “intellectual hero.”
In 1999, Steve and I were engaged by the conservative Pacific Research Institute (PRI) to draft a sort of voucher catechism to be subtitled, “A Template for Legislative and Policy Reform.” It became 100 pages of our centrist stuff. Just as the plates were ready for the presses, Milton discovered the project and blistered PRI, which then asked us to temper our regulatory recommendations. We said no. PRI published the book as written.
Milton was more successful in muting our voices in the debate then emerging in Florida. Maybe it was just as well. Florida has turned out, quite without our help, to be a rousing incubator of centrist policy.
In the midst of this libertarian self-frustration – in the early ‘90s – the popular mind was offered that political miracle known as Milwaukee. This was followed by the Ohio legislature’s similar reform for the city of Cleveland. In recent years, a dozen more such legislated systems of parental subsidies have appeared. All have some form of protection for fair access. Some are overregulated, complex, even weird. None is Friedmanic; one, at least, Milton discreetly opposed.
Milwaukee is perhaps the most awkward design of all. Still, for 20 years, it has worked reasonably well. Meanwhile, pure voucher politics has virtually departed the scene. It is surprising that its supporters hung on so long. I would credit Milton for this longevity, and it is a mercy that he is not here to mourn this paradise lost—or would he perhaps, embrace its more communitarian cousin?
He would still be able to recognize the market working, but here from the bottom up. In places like Indiana and Louisiana, the embrace of choice appears to be spreading vertically into the middle class simply because these families do not want be left out. In the end Milton finds himself a populist.
Speaking of “credit,” I predict that, as choice expands and flourishes as policy throughout the states and in many forms, a horde of I-Did-Its will take the mic and tend to obscure Milton’s unique historical role. That’s okay and probably inevitable. I would only say, yet again, that he was uniquely creative and germane. We cannot crown him a political genius; and such folk are sometimes necessary and deserve their moment on the stage. But, if we do go looking for the one historical Who-Did-It?, Milton has no challenger.
I last saw him a few years ago at an affair sponsored by the PRI. The speaker was a hero of the Milwaukee story- Howard Fuller. In the audience exchange following his speech Fuller explicitly declared his intellectual comfort with my take on vouchers. Milton, rising from his table, blasted such heresy. I did not get involved. As we left I tried unsuccessfully to engage Milton; it was not to be the occasion for reconciliation.
Still, I like to suppose that Milton and I were in basic harmony. He was simply convinced that the freer the market, the more human good that parental choice can contribute. I never had anything against markets; but it seemed to me natural always to add and to emphasize that the parent’s very experience of choosing produces something even more precious than efficiency and test scores. It encourages very humane social and civic effects, most evidently parental authority and responsibility, with all their crucial contribution to human fulfillment in contexts both public and private. Milton would agree; we really only differed about what is politically necessary to secure that happy state of affairs for all families. I’m only sorry he’s not here to say so with that spirit and conviction we so sorely miss.
I’ve said everything mean I can think of about Milton. It makes pretty thin soup. When I was little, I learned the difference between mortal and venial sins. His, if any, were the latter. His virtues were towering. Bless the man.
(Image from achievement.org)