Milton Friedman: A Biography

Milton Friedman: A Biography

by Lanny Ebenstein

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Born the son of immigrant parents, Milton Friedman went on to become a major figure during the resurgence of American conservatism. As an advisor to the Reagan administration and a widely read columnist, he played a vital role in shaping government policy and public opinion while he made headlines for his controversial views. Drawing on the author's unprecedented access to personal archives and to Friedman himself over the past decade, this is the first book to trace his life and development as an economic theorist. With a combination of intimate personal detail and fascinating exploration of economic theory, this is a revealing look at the man regarded by many as a hero of libertarianism and laissez-faire economics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230604094
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/06/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,164,927
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lanny Ebenstein is the author or co-author of eight books in the history of economic and political thought, including Friedrich Hayek: A Biography, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek, and, with his late father, William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the Present. Ebenstein received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He resides in Santa Barbara, California.

Read an Excerpt

Milton Friedman

A Biography

By Lanny Ebenstein

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Lanny Ebenstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60345-5



Milton Friedman was born on July 31, 1912, in Brooklyn, New York, the fourth and last child and only son of Jeno Saul and Sarah Ethel Landau Friedman. Of his family's past, Milton knows very little. Jeno was born in 1878, and Sarah was born in 1881. Both his parents were from Beregszasz, Carpatho-Ruthenia, in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At that time—with a population of perhaps 10,000, a quarter of whom were Jewish—Beregszasz would have been considered a midsize city.

Carpatho-Ruthenia was on the northeastern edge of Austria-Hungary, close to Russia, near what is now Poland. It is almost the geographical center of Europe.

There was a Jewish community in Hungary dating back to the Roman times, but to what extent it continued through the Dark Ages is not certain. The immigration of Jews to Hungary occurred in waves over hundreds of years, beginning in the eleventh century. Significant immigrations occurred from that time onward. Jewish émigrés largely came from southern and southwestern Europe (originally from Spain) to the northeast. Over time, a central area such as Hungary received immigrants from all directions. Almost all Hungarian Jews, including Friedman's family, were Ashkenazim.

At a young age, Jeno moved from Beregszasz to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, to live with a much older half-brother, the son of the same mother but of a different father. The surname of Jeno's brother was Friedman, and Jeno, who was always referred to as "Friedman's brother," soon adopted this as his own last name. Milton is no longer sure what his father's original last name was, but believes that it was Greenberg, Greenstein, or "Green something else."

Milton knows even less about his mother's background in Hungary. Sarah, too, was a younger sibling. She had three older sisters who emigrated to the United States before she did, at age fourteen in 1895. Jeno had emigrated to the United States in 1894, at sixteen. Both Jeno and Sarah were young to emigrate without their parents, who never left Hungary and whom Milton never met. Jeno had few close family ties once he arrived in America, other than his own family.

Jeno and Sarah were schooled in Hungary. They were fluent in Hungarian and Yiddish when they came to the United States, and they soon became fluent in English. In addition, Jeno knew some German. Milton says that Beregszasz was a "fairly progressive, active community." It apparently had a good educational system.

Jeno and Sarah were part of the great wave of emigration to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They left their past completely behind and became assimilated to the United States, which they saw as a land of opportunity in all ways, an attitude that they conveyed to their children. It could have been of Jeno and Sarah that Emma Lazarus wrote the words that are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty—which they would have passed on arriving in the United States: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

On arrival in America as teenagers, Jeno and Sarah went to work. Sarah became a seamstress in a sweatshop—an experience about which, Milton approvingly comments, he never heard her make a negative remark. Indeed, he favorably says of her experience: "In those distant pre-welfare-state days, immigrants were strictly on their own except for the assistance they could get from relatives and private charitable agencies." Jeno and Sarah met in the extended Jewish community in New York that had connections with Hungary and Bereg county. They married in the early years of the 1900s. Milton and his three older sisters—Tillie, Helen, and Ruth—were born between 1908 and 1912. Jeno was thirty-four and Sarah was thirty-one when he arrived.

Milton takes after Sarah in appearance, possessing her finer features. A picture of the family taken when he was five shows a very short, perhaps slightly stocky father with a dark complexion, dark hair, and a well-trimmed mustache. His mother was taller, fairer, and thinner than her husband, though diminutive herself. The family looks as if they have a hard life but are proud of who they are and whence they have come. Two of Milton's sisters have bows in their hair, and two are wearing sailor scarves. His oldest sister, Tillie, is at nine almost as tall as her father.

Milton remembers his family as "close." He remarks that his parents, "like so many immigrants of that time, were very poor. We never had a family income that by today's standards would have put us above the poverty level." At the same time, "There was always enough to eat, and the family atmosphere was warm and supportive." Though the family was poor by the standards of a later era, relatively speaking they were not among the poorest of their contemporaries.

The Friedmans spoke English in the home. They occasionally visited Sarah's sisters in Brooklyn but spent most of their time in each other's company. Milton was emotionally closest to his sister Ruthy, to whom he was closest in age.

When Milton was one, the family moved from Brooklyn to Rahway, New Jersey. Rahway is a small commuter and light industrial town about twenty miles from New York City that, while he was growing up, had a solidly lower-income and working-class population of about 15,000.

Milton describes his father's work activities variously as a petty trader and jobber—that is, he worked by the job (though not as a day laborer). In his capacity as a trader, Jeno purchased merchandise from manufacturers and sold it to retailers, sometimes from a slightly speculative perspective. "He never made much money," Milton remembers.

The Friedmans owned their own home/business in Rahway. In typical immigrant fashion, they had a store on the first floor, which Sarah ran while Jeno went to New York each day to work. The family lived on the second floor. Milton recalls exploring the attic as a child and coming across words written with smoke from a candle that led him to believe that the house had been used as a way station for runaway slaves before the Civil War—which, at the time, was a mere fifty-five or so years in the past.

Although he denies any precocity that made him stand out in his family, Milton once made a comment that may be partly autobiographical that "individuals who have exceptional mathematical ability get early deference, and develop great confidence in their ability to solve problems." Despite what he says, he must have stood out as a result of his verbal dexterity alone. Nevertheless, he says that the only way he stood out in his family was that he was the only boy.

He began first grade a year early, at age five, in 1917 (he did not attend kindergarten). Although he says, "I believe that was standard then," it was not standard to begin first grade at five, and that he did so no doubt reflected his precocity. His early admission into first grade was particularly noteworthy because, being born at the end of July, he would have been young for his grade in any event.

Milton was a voracious reader and excellent student as a boy and teen. He read many of the books in the small Rahway public library originally founded by Andrew Carnegie. He has always been remarkably fluid, clear, and fast in oral and written verbal expression. In the middle of sixth grade, he was moved to seventh grade, making him two years younger than his peers. He recalls that he talked very loud—indeed, almost shouted—in class, so that when the proverb "Still water runs deep" came up in a lesson, his fellow students dubbed him "Shallow."

His childhood and youth revolved around family, school, and faith, though there was only a small Jewish community of about a hundred families in Rahway. His parents were not particularly religious, and although by today's standards they would be considered Conservative (as opposed to Orthodox or Reform) Jews, they were reasonably progressive at the time. He attended Hebrew school with other boys after the regular school day was over to learn Hebrew for his bar mitzvah.

Milton remembers that he went through a "fanatically" religious phase until he was about twelve. Around that time he became involved with the Boy Scouts. At first, there was only a Christian scout group, until he and some others encouraged the organization of a Jewish troop. He remembers an event in the Christian group at which hot dogs were going to be served. He recalls "running away, running home, because otherwise I was going to have to eat non-kosher food."

That he had an excessively religious phase as a young boy is noteworthy because it reflects the natural character of his mind—things have to be consistent; they have to be one way or the other. He tends to go the whole way intellectually or not at all, and seeks order and harmony in the universe. When he was unable to achieve this intellectual state through the logical observation of every detail of Orthodox Judaism in its dietary and other strictures, he dropped religion completely. He is naturally a rationalist and empiricist, and he came to see no point in religion. By the time of his bar mitzvah at thirteen, he had adopted a stance of "complete agnosticism."

It is also noteworthy that as a boy he played a role in organizing a scout troop. This indicates another facet of his personality, leadership, and his ability to draw people to him. He has always had a remarkably exuberant personality. He remembers "many happy years of scouting" as a youth. Among other extracurricular activities, he took violin lessons for a time as a child, to no effect, then or now. He is almost completely nonmusical, which is perhaps particularly unusual in his case because musical ability often is linked with high mathematical ability.

Milton began high school two years early, when he was twelve, in September 1924. He must have really stood out when he entered Rahway High School—tiny (five foot three inches in his prime, and shorter at twelve), one of the smartest kids, talkative, loud, and funny. He participated in the usual activities, including the chess team and as an assistant manager of the baseball team. He took part in a national oratorical contest on the Constitution sponsored by the New York Times, for which his name appeared in the paper and he received a medal.

The 1920s were the "Roaring '20s" in the United States. Millions of homes were built and businesses started. Manufacturing, economic productivity, and production climbed. Employment rates were high and rising. Retail stores, new conveniences, and many new amusements proliferated. Professional sports emerged. Agriculture declined in importance as a proportion of economic activity. Radio stations began broadcasting nationally, and by the end of the decade, three radio stations were an essential part of the national ethos.

The use of cars also significantly increased. One household in four owned a car in 1919. A decade later, this figure climbed to three in four, including the Friedmans. Milton remembers riding with his father when he was about fourteen. As his father was driving into the garage, the wheel hit a rock that had somehow gotten on the driveway. Milton was thrown forward through the windshield (in those days windshields were not unbreakable), which shattered, cutting his lip and leaving a slight scar he would have for the rest of his life.

With the mass ownership of cars, many more suburbs emerged around cities, and travel became easier. Skyscrapers rose in cities, including the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York.

Some would characterize the era as a more innocent time with respect to moral and family values, but Friedman rejects this description. For him, at least in retrospect, it was the era of Al Capone and crime engendered by Prohibition.

Milton graduated from high school in June 1928, a month shy of his sixteenth birthday. He had, he recalls, a "good grounding in language (two years of Latin), mathematics, and history," and was on good terms with his principal. His graduating class numbered about eighty—this would indicate that Rahway High School had about five hundred students. He thinks that he was salutatorian or valedictorian.

In recalling his development, he is impressed by the "lucky accidents" that have shaped his life. The first was to have been born in the United States. His "second major lucky accident was a high school teacher ... [who] had a great love for geometry." The high school course in Euclidean geometry that Milton took instilled in him a "love and respect for and [an] interest in mathematics" that has remained with him for his entire life, and influenced his early intention to major in math at college.

Milton remembers his parents as hardworking—they "had to be to make a living." He was "much closer" to his mother, who he describes as "sympathetic, kind, gentle," than to his father. In a sentiment expressed by many of their mother, he says that she would do "whatever she could for her children." He remembers both his parents as very bright.

In the same way that he knows little of his family's past in Hungary, he possesses few vivid memories from his childhood and even youth. This may in part be because this was the most difficult time in life for him.

Jeno died of a heart attack in the summer of 1927 at age forty-nine. Milton had just turned fifteen, and was due to begin his senior year in high school. Jeno had been ill, apparently from heart trouble, for several years and had been taking medication for chest pains, so the family was to some extent prepared for his death. In retrospect, Milton does not attach much significance to the effect of his father's death on him. Asked in an interview about how Jeno's death influenced him, he replied, "I don't believe it did."

After his father's death, Milton, notwithstanding his agnostic proclivities, fulfilled his mother's request that he say kaddish (a prayer of mourning) for eleven months and one day, a Jewish tradition. To do so, he had to travel to a neighboring community every day to find nine men with whom to pray. This daily travel concluded in the summer of 1928. Milton was, he recalls, "glad to see the year's end."



A major turn in Friedman's life was enrolling in Rutgers University in the fall of 1928 at age sixteen. Much had changed for him in the preceding year, primarily due to the death of his father. The family of his childhood and early teen years was gone. Although he does not attribute much significance to the influence of his father's death on him, he also say it "must have" affected his life.

Milton was the first member of his family to go to college, but he nonetheless remembers that it was "taken for granted" that he would attend, no doubt because of his intellectual ability. As a result of his family's impecunious circumstances, particularly following Jeno's death, Milton was able to win a state tuition scholarship to attend Rutgers on the basis of high exam performance. He notes that a "class of competitive scholarships for financially needy students which [now] go not to those who score highest in the exams but to underachievers is a nice illustration of how our standards have been corrupted over the years."

At Rutgers, Milton was first exposed to an academic environment and intellectual life. He enjoyed many extracurricular aspects of his undergraduate career, and he notes in retrospect the "many novels" describing college life that he had read in high school. Friedman was introduced at Rutgers to the discipline that became his life's focus: economics.

When he attended Rutgers, it was a private school of about 2,000 students, and, as in high school, he must have been one of the youngest students when he enrolled. One of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, Rutgers has attractive, ivy-covered buildings. In his day and until the present, there is a separate college for women.

Friedman has "nothing but good feelings" about his undergraduate experience. His area of greatest success, and the activity he enjoys most, is intellectual endeaver. Once he enrolled at Rutgers, he was able to be with academic peers and pursue scholarly activities. He lived on campus in a dormitory during the school year—he wished to live away from home. New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Rutgers is located, was about a dozen miles from his home in Rahway.

Milton originally intended to major in mathematics in order to take advantage of his natural ability in this area. He thought that he might become an actuary, a statistician who calculates insurance. It was not until later in his undergraduate career that he decided to major in economics, a field with which he was barely acquainted when he enrolled in Rutgers.

When he started college, the Great Depression was a year away, and the economy was booming. Milton held a variety of jobs to pay for nontuition expenses, including working as a clerk and a waiter, and selling Fourth of July fireworks. He recalls of his experience waiting tables that he gained better insight into the importance of entrepreneurial abilities and skills. The restaurant at which he worked changed hands while he was employed there, and he experienced firsthand the difference between effective and ineffective management, a lesson that he has remembered throughout his life.

Friedman embarked on several entrepreneurial ventures while in college, including a summer school for high school students, which evolved from an earlier job of tutoring students. By the summers of 1930 and 1931, after his sophomore and junior years in college, the school ran for five weeks. He considers this summer school to have been an excellent experience for him personally, as well as financially profitable: "I truly learned something about pedagogy." So high was the esteem in which he was held by his former teachers at Rahway High School that his grades for students were accepted without question.


Excerpted from Milton Friedman by Lanny Ebenstein. Copyright © 2007 Lanny Ebenstein. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Childhood and Youth * Rutgers * University of Chicago * Columbia * Rose * Washington * New York * World War II * National Bureau and Controversy * Department of Economics * "The Methodology of Positive Economics" * Essays in Positive Economics * Family * Teacher * Keynes * A Theory of the Consumption Function * A Monetary History of the United States * Chicago School of Economics * From Economics to Advocacy * Capitalism and Freedom * Goldwater and Travel * AEA President * Colleagues * Newsweek Columnist * Policy Proposals * Nixon and Chile * Nobel Prize * Hoover Institution * Free to Choose * Reagan * Influence * Hayek and Ideas * School Vouchers and Drugs * Recent Work * Friedman Prize

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