Milton Friedman discusses humaneness.

Even though he has been dead for eight years, the teachings of Milton Friedman live on as robustly as ever, either directly through his books or indirectly through the works of his students.  He was mentor to the great Thomas Sowell, who continues to publish books like the excellent Intellectuals and Society.

The Free to Choose Network, which is lead by Robert Chitester, the man who probably did more than anyone to promote Friedman to the world at large, and which is named after Friedman’s landmark TV series and book of the same name, keeps his memory and teaching alive. Indeed we have the network to thank that this speech, which he delivered at Cornell University in (I think) 1978, is available to us.

Almost immediately Friedman commits an error.  In the first few seconds he tells an overt gag. All my trainees have been taught that – and why – this is almost guaranteed to fail (I’ll spare you the why). As a visiting celebrity professor, addressing a roomful of awestruck students, he’s packing a shed-load of ethos and could get at this stage a positive reaction from almost anything he said or did; yet listen to how agonisingly slow the reluctant laugh builds despite his working hard to stoke up the process by smiling benignly at the audience. There is a right way and there is a wrong way to introduce a piece of early humour, and this is the wrong way.

That horror dispensed with, he is now into his own territory. He lays out his stall very clearly and launches into his arguments.

Yet something is preventing him from concentrating on the matter in hand. Look how often in the first six minutes or so he loses his own track, stumbles, corrects himself, etc. I find myself searching for an explanation. I see no other symptoms of nervous stress, but something is preying on his mind and getting in the way of smooth thought.

At any rate from around the six-minute mark the gears stop grinding and then he gets properly into his stride.

I have quite often in this blog used the metaphor of aeroplane flight. The take-off and landing are the difficult and dangerous bits; the main body of the flight tends to look after itself. I remain puzzled as to why it took so long for Friedman on this occasion to climb to cruising altitude. Perhaps it was that ghastly opening!

If I remove my rhetor hat my only puzzlement concerning his actual message is that all his arguments and case histories were crystal clear when he made them. We now have nearly forty more years of experience and data proving him right, yet still governments – egged on by intellectuals – continue down their ovine path, making the same appalling mistakes.

We either need to question their motives, or we need to re-examine the definition of the word ‘intellectual’. Perhaps ‘intellectuals’ are merely people who might have read a book or two but otherwise are not bright enough to be called anything else.

Thomas Sowell. How I’d like to hear him today!

Thomas Sowell talks such abundant sense that I have long wanted to address one of his speeches on this blog. I have repeatedly tried to find a speech from recent years, but have failed. They exist online in transcript but not on video – unless a reader can show me differently. There are plenty of interviews with him on video. That requires a whole different discipline and if I ever get around to covering interview technique here I may return to him. Meanwhile he is addressing The Institute for World Capitalism in Jackson, Florida, in October 1993 – twenty years ago.

YouTube has two versions of this speech (which is just the first quarter of the full address). The other one includes a lengthy introduction and a brief preamble in which Sowell says that being introduced is like getting a sneak preview of one’s own obituary. I mention that because I am able to tell you authoritatively that this speech has a bald opening and is the better for it.

If you are going to lecture an audience on a subject it’s no bad thing to start with fundamental definitions. How fundamental depends on how you define ‘fundamental’. How far upstream should you go? Sowell starts with the Garden of Eden which is quite a long way upstream.

During his fundamental definition of economics he delivers a nice little (only two elements) epistrophe at 0:40. This makes me like him enough partially to forgive his use of a script – which he actually uses pretty discreetly. Nevertheless there is a strange, hesitant hiatus just after the one-minute mark. He tells us that “rationing is inherent whether it’s under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other kind of … method.” It’s almost as if he wanted to say “ism” instead of “method”. Had he done so he would have signalled that his list was another epistrophe – ending in “ism” – and I wish he had because the sentence would have been smoother. Which word was written in his script, I wonder?

At any rate, he concludes his definition with the statement, “Scarcity is the first lesson of economics.” Then he turns to politics in which the first lesson is, “…to forget the first lesson in economics”. He harvests a well-deserved laugh but more importantly signals the essential message of this address, which is that politicians tie themselves in knots in trying to bend economics to the expedients of their utopian philosophy; and this is, and always will be, ultimately futile.

Let us for the moment stand aside from whether we regard this message as palatable. The device of setting out your stall so clearly and so early in a speech is very effective, easy and obvious, but absurdly often overlooked. How often do we sit in an audience, trying to determine from the purple prose what it is that the speaker is actually trying to persuade us? Sowell, here and there, lacks some fluency and coherence (at least he did twenty years ago), but we are left in no doubt as to his message.

So let us return to whether it is palatable. I began this posting by opining that Sowell talks abundant sense. I am a fan of his aphorisms, which I deem as wise as they are unfashionable. You can find some here. Among them is this nugget, in which he acknowledges his unfashionability –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.