Learning from Milton Friedman's Rhetoric

via Mark Perry, here’s a delightful video of Milton Friedman arguing for the abolition of licensure for doctors at the Mayo Clinic. (Busting the monopolies in health care provision is the first item in my fantasy of health-care reform!)

The stark contrast between this class act and the histrionics of conservatives today got me thinking about Friedman’s rhetorical style. What’s so compelling about Friedman is his winsome combination of logic, lucidity, confidence, and geniality. He behaves as though the attention of even a hostile audience is a generous gift to be repaid with respect. And respect is paid by taking for granted the listeners’ intelligence and good will in the search for truth. He gladly accepts the burden of laying out the case for controversial propositions and addressing seriously even badly mistaken objections. He never assumes an antagonistic or combative stance, no matter how antagonistic or combative the audience may be. He is neither apologetic nor defensive about his unpopular positions. He evidently does take some small pleasure in his iconoclasm, and I think this can come across as smugness or self-satisfaction to those inclined to disagree with him. But the same wry twinkle can be received as well as a manifestation of the calm confidence that makes his intellectual independence possible and of his basic happiness as a person. His happiness, I think, was his rhetorical secret weapon. One doesn’t suspect a contented person of currying favor, seeking validation, or compensating for some unmet need. He makes it easy to believe in his good faith, and that makes him hard to dismiss.

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32 thoughts on “Learning from Milton Friedman's Rhetoric

  1. Although I've never seen or met him, I suspect his diminutive stature also contributed to an impression of being non-threatening.-Cato intern

  2. The stark contrast between this class act and the histrionics of politicians in any time got me thinking about Friedman’s rhetorical style.

    Politicians have nearly always employed histronics. They certainly did when Friedman did this in 1978, and they certainly did before.He and his style are still admirable, though.

  3. I think you're right that Milton's geniality was a key to his influence as a public intellectual. It takes great emotional maturity to restrain oneself in the face of hostile or vapid arguments. I think you can attribute some of Greg Mankiw's influence to his (mostly) even-tempered writing.

  4. Part of this though is that Friedman had an ideological foundation to stand on that had a lot of appeal. Welfare was badly broken, crime rates were high and people had serious doubts about the effectiveness of their government. The largest governemnt failures recently have been associated with conservatives. The war in Iraq, Katrina, the drug war, torture etc. Its not really fair to blaim this on libertarians except that many many libertarians shilled for George Bush in 2000 and 2004. A modern Milton Friedman would either have to try to push progressives in their direction or check out for a couple decades.

  5. The distinction Friedman and “conservatives today” is really one between academics and politicians. I'm sure there (i) were plenty of rude conservatives invested in political outcomes at the time of this talk and (ii) are now plenty of academic conservatives who speak similarly persuasively now.

  6. Mr. Friedman uses the medical profession as his least likely profession to do away with licensing. Just browse the different licenses one can test for, pay for and renew annually or semi-annually on any state web site. Amazing.

  7. I agree 100% percent about the style. Let me make a point on the substance, since it seem to relevant again, at least to libertarian fantasies. I am a Friedman fan, but this argument has always struck me as profoundly lacking in a key point: what monopoly power? Is the AMA setting prices? I can't find evidence to that effect (admittedly, it's not my field) and it does not seem consistent with my experience. Licensing may reduce the number of competitors, but if you can't enforce pricing policy you don't have a monopoly. Whether the supply reduction is too high price to pay for the quality assurance in a market where consumers have this much trouble knowing what they're buying is a debatable judgment call. But the claim of monopoly power seems just wrong.

  8. If we compare apples to apples, it seems that Greg Mankiw, say, is a lot more urbane and civil than the rather histrionic, nay hysterical, Paul Krugman, who is always accusing people of being liars and idiots. So the decline in the behavior of conservative economists seems mild. Whereas Krugman is clearly a long step down from John Maynard Keynes, urbanity-wise.If the contrast is between Milton Friedman and Rush Limbaugh, then that's pretty silly. It's as if I compared Jackie Kennedy and Jenna Jameson and bemoaned the decline in standards of feminine allure.

  9. Once many years ago I had the very good fortune of having a two-hour conversation with Friedman and his wife in connection with a article I was writing on him. He and his wife were some of the kindest, most open, and most generous people I ever met. What you saw is what you got.

  10. Agreed about the tone of Krugman compared to others to his “right”. The problem is that Krugman's mean-spiritedness is usually looked on fondly by those inclined to agree with him. They don't see mean-ness. They see “truth to power”.Meanwhile, these same people read an article by a genial and mild-mannered libertarian economist like Tyler Cowen and they spit fiery outrage and vitriol at his words…as if he is the the worst of the wordt caricatures of Rush. They see such nastiness in his sentences that simply isn't there. It's amazing. Check out Thoma's site “Economists View” when he puts up an article by Cowen. Same goes for Mankiw, Easterly and others. It's truly amazing.

  11. “what monopoly power? Is the AMA setting prices? “The monopoly power is because the AMA controls the medical school admissions (and accreditation). The AMA does set prices; the price of tuition, of becoming a doctor.Granted, that doesn't directly set today's prices, but it restricts supply and allows doctors to charge more (and makes them feel as though they must to pay back their debts). Many of today's doctors feel as though they're not really overpaid because of their med school debts; however, that just shows that it's the AMA and the med schools with the pricing power.

  12. Two things: first of all, the AMA does contribute significantly to the fact that doctors don't really publicize their prices, and I hear that trying to compete on price is grounds for expulsion. Second, quality? Have you heard about the studies showing an amazing increase in ICU survival rates through the use of simple checklists? And how hard doctors have been resisting the introduction of such measures?

  13. I am a Friedman fan, but this argument has always struck me as profoundly lacking in a key point: what monopoly power? Is the AMA setting prices? I can't find evidence to that effect (admittedly, it's not my field) and it does not seem consistent with my experience. Licensing may reduce the number of competitors, but if you can't enforce pricing policy you don't have a monopoly.

    The AMA controls admissions to medical schools, and manipulates admissions to keep the supply of doctors low, and hence keep prices high. The US has fewer doctors per-capita than any developed country except Canada, which is about the same as us.

  14. Great points about Friedman's rhetorical style.I don't have many heroes, but Friedman is one of them.Naomi Klein would be much easier to ignore if she hadn't done so much to trash the reputation of this great man who was a real liberal.

  15. In most if not all developed countries medical practice is heavily licensed and regulated, so licensure in itself is unlikely to be the direct cause for this particular US ailment.

  16. Re quality, late adoption simply doesn't follow from current licensure practices. Many hospitals *have* adopted the checklist procedure, and AFAIK they didn't face any license-revoking consequences. Neither does it follow that a free market in medicine automatically quicken such adoptions.Consider the much more dramatic history of antiseptics, where Lister's predecessors were either ignored or attacked outright, and Lister himself had a hard time promoting it.

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  18. #begin snarkBut, but, but … Being a Doctor means you are in possession of knowledge, and that knowledge is as much your property as your BMW or your golf clubs! You want to take away my property rights! #end snarkUncle Milton's in fine form here. But …. does anyone else think his impishness in this video is as much the result of the fact he's tilting at a windmill as his charm and intellectual heft? He has about as much chance of persuading the doctors here or of influencing public policy on this question as he has of flapping his arms and launching himself to the moon! Easy to be affable when you're harmless. Besides. I'm less of a fan of civility than most. It seems strange to me that one can advocate the most heinous crimes, but so long as one does so politely one stays within the pale.

  19. I agree with WW on Friedman's temperament, but i think the whole “government this… government that…you're not seriously going to trust the government” rhetoric has dated badly.

  20. Dead on about the nastiness in the comments of Thoma and, also, DeLong. The comments of MR aren't nearly as biting or reactionary, and even the comments of Cafe Hayek don't carry the tone that those of Thoma and Delong do. What about Reason's blog? Lots of fiery outrage at things that seem to be 'obvious right'?

  21. I also note, in a slightly giddy follow-up, that what Uncle Milton is saying here NOT that socialized medicine is a Bad Thing(tm). Only that the monopoly power of the AMA is incompatible with a free market for medical services, and that the alternative to centralized control of medicine is the abolition of the AMA. I suspect our good blog host is being … indirect with his argument. If Champions of Liberty can't make a case for private Police, or a private Fire Department, or a private system of Courts and Arbitration, then perhaps we can't make a case for private doctors, either. This seems to be one outcome of the case Uncle Milton so cogently constructs here.

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  23. A reply to the idea of the pricing powers of the AMA. Its quite simple that the institution of licensing does reduce the the amount of competitors in the market, thus the simple law of supply and demand automatically produces a pricing control via the amount of licenses that are allowed.

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  25. Monopoly power lies in the fact that it can restrict quantity of a supplied good as well as charge higher prices for that good. The AMA restricts the supply of licensed physicians and other professionals in order to enact higher wage requirements for each member. Unions use the same tactics.

  26. Milton Friedman is one of the few public figures who seems to speak with class. He voices his opinions in a firm yet neutral manner — he doesn't attempt to attack the character of people with different opinions — and he's not just a diplomat: he has interesting, even fringe, ideas and he's not afraid to voice them. We don't see many people who appeal to conservatives and yet who consider the legalization of pot one of their most important concerns.

  27. Milton Friedman is one of the few public figures who seems to speak with class. He voices his opinions in a firm yet neutral manner — he doesn't attempt to attack the character of people with different opinions — and he's not just a diplomat: he has interesting, even fringe, ideas and he's not afraid to voice them. We don't see many people who appeal to conservatives and yet who consider the legalization of pot one of their most important concerns.

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