May 19, 1980 12:00 PM

Their romance began when they were seated side by side in college

Ronald Reagan likes what they have to say. So does British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Enough other people have been listening to put their book of economic philosophy, Free to Choose, on top of the nonfiction bestseller lists.

Authors of this major literary surprise are a pleasant, well-off old couple—gently acerbic Milton Friedman and his maternal wife, Rose, both 67—who have become two of this country’s most influential and controversial thinkers. Their ideas boil down to this: The farther government stays out of our way, the better off we are.

In Free to Choose, which has also been turned into a 10-part series on public television, the Friedmans argue that the individual is best served by an unfettered free market economy. They contend that Social Security drains incentive to save for retirement. They suggest replacing welfare with a negative income tax: All families with incomes below a fixed level would receive direct government payments. They also decry the corporate income tax (“it should be abolished”), minimum wage (“one of the most antiblack laws on the books”) and public housing.

“If you try to hit me over the head,” says Milton, “the state would be justified in stopping you. But you have no right to use force on me for my own good.”

Rose argues that, left alone, people will behave in socially constructive ways. “Today, individuals feel absolutely no responsibility for other individuals,” she says. “If it had been necessary to take care of my parents, I would have felt it perfectly natural. Now the government is responsible; you can’t worry about your parents because you pay in taxes what you used to think of as a fund to help them.”

Both Friedmans are trained economists (Milton won the Nobel Prize in 1976) but their ideas began forming long before either heard of marginal utility or the Gross National Product.

Rose Director, youngest of six children, was born in Poland two years before her parents emigrated to Portland, Oreg. Her father sold clothing door to door. “Had there been a poverty program, we would have qualified,” she says. “But we never thought we were poor.” She attended Reed College for two years before entering the University of Chicago. She stayed for grad school and met Milton. “I was the only woman in most classes. My last name began with a ‘D’ and his with an ‘F,’ so we sat next to each other.”

Milton was the son of a clothes salesman who emigrated from Ruthenia, now in the Soviet Union. “The thing I recall most,” says Milton, who grew up in Rahway, N.J., “is the family kiting checks, paying off somebody while postponing somebody else.” After completing high school at 15, he won a scholarship to Rutgers, earning expenses as a waiter and clerk.

He planned to be an insurance actuary until professors he admired and the Depression turned him to economics. After graduate school and a series of government and teaching jobs, he became an associate professor at Chicago in 1946. He and Rose were married in 1938 and she recalls fondly, “We spent our honeymoon working on our Ph.D. dissertations.” They worked hard and raised two children. “How can you fail when you start at the bottom?” asks Milton. But theirs is the sort of by-the-bootstraps success story that supports the “We did it, why can’t they?” school of thought.

Rose gave up work on her doctorate to have children: Janet, now 37, is a lawyer in San Francisco and David, 35, is an economics professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. While the children were growing up, Rose got back into part-time research and assisted her husband, most notably on his 1962 classic, Capitalism and Freedom. For their current collaboration, Milton explains, “We each wrote drafts of different chapters, then exchanged.” Adds Rose, “We write the way we do everything—together.” (But, she notes, “I’m better with grammar.”)

During Milton’s 30 years teaching at the University of Chicago, he built a reputation as the guiding force of the “monetarists,” or economists who believe that, in the long run, the money supply—the number of dollars in circulation plus bank deposits—is the decisive factor in inflation. His research on monetarism and consumer function (how and why people spend) won the Nobel. But that, he says, “was not the pinnacle of my career. What matters to me isn’t winning public prizes, but that my work is still important 50 years from now.”

Friedman’s suggestion that even government licensing of doctors limits personal freedom, says MIT’s economics Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, is typical of his “stretching an idea to its limits.” He adds: “Milton’s lasting contribution will be his trenchant reaffirmation of the virtues of the market system. But one must not expect from him self-criticism or a fair emphasis on its defects.”

The same Friedman arguments, of course, led Presidents Nixon and Ford to seek his advice and more recently have won over candidate Reagan. He consults Milton periodically (Mrs. Thatcher has met with him twice) and says, “Professor Friedman is usually referred to as a monetarist, but his basic belief is not money. It’s in people’s inherent right and ability to choose how they will live.”

Three years ago Milton retired from active teaching at the University of Chicago and the couple moved to an apartment in San Francisco. At their oceanside vacation house north of the city, she gardens and he builds things. “Mostly,” kids Rose, “he buys tools.” “We’re very comfortable financially,” Milton says, but exactly how comfortable “is none of your business.” He admits that they haven’t made many “stock market killings” over the years. “Just because a man’s an expert physicist doesn’t mean he’s going to spend his time repairing a furnace.”

While they rarely disagree, during the PBS filming Rose didn’t flinch from telling her husband when he’d muffed a line or shot. “The technicians, the producer and the director would be hesitant about saying to me, ‘You just said something stupid,’ ” Milton recalls. “But Rose never was. The Marxian concept ‘From each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs’ is a very solid principle—for a family.”

He is now doing research on monetary trends at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and writing for Newsweek; she’s in the midst of a book about his theories. They both answer piles of mail inspired by Free to Choose, much of it from gloomy citizens. “Will civilization as we know it survive the century?” asked one correspondent. “Yes,” Milton wrote in the letter’s margin. Then he initialed it and sent it back.

Nonetheless, they are prepared for the worst. Asked what he’d like on his tombstone, Milton replied: (1) “Y=Yp+Yt” (part of his complex consumer spending theory); (2) “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”; (3) “There is no free lunch.”

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