There Is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch – My Day as Milton Friedman’s Bodyguard

I  once spent a day as a bodyguard for Professor Milton Friedman, the Economist best known for saying “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. I was a young Economics major at Duke University. I was assigned with some other Economics majors to escort Milton Friedman when he came to Duke to give a speech.  In theory, we were there to show Milton Friedman around campus, but the reality was that we were acting as his bodyguards.

The 'dangerous radical", Economist Milton Friedman

The “dangerous radical”, Economist Milton Friedman

The Duke crowd was very hostile towards Milton Friedman. Students who were not Economics majors  thought of Friedman as a horrible person who hated poor people and wanted to keep the poor from getting the “free” services they deserved. When Milton Friedman  gave his speech, more than one student attempted to jump onto the stage to disrupt the proceedings, and had to be carried out by Security.

Milton Friedman's best selling book of essays.

Milton Friedman’s best selling book of essays.

Milton Friedman handled all this commotion with charm, politeness and a bemused attitude towards his detractors. He patiently explained that he was not against anyone. He was for “precision of language” and “personal freedom”. He had come to national attention by telling government officials to stop calling subsidized lunch programs “free.” Hence the phrase, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Dr. Friedman repeatedly pointed out that the lunch was not free, but was actually being paid for by people other than the people who were eating the lunch. The government was actually taking money from some people in the form of higher taxes, and giving it to other people in the form of food.

Milton Friedman was against all tariffs

Milton Friedman was against all tariffs

Friedman went on to explain was that he was not necessarily against these subsidized lunches. Citizens may decide that it actually benefits society as a whole to make sure that poor children have enough to eat. This could help these children do better in their classes which will lead them to be more productive members of society later in life. Such a decision may be the right thing to do. Just don’t pretend that it has no cost.

However, don’t dare call Milton Friedman a Conservative. He thought that marijuana should be legal nation-wide. Friedman considered  America’s “War On Drugs” a huge waste of money that was actually a “War On Freedom”. He also thought there should be zero tariffs world-wide

Milton Friedman thought America's "War On Drugs" was idiotic.

Milton Friedman thought America’s “War On Drugs” was idiotic.

This type of Libertarian  Economic analysis is heard often today, but at the time, many considered his pronouncements radical and even dangerous. In person, Milton Friedman was about the least radical looking person you would ever see. When I met him, he was a small, soft spoken middle-aged man, who needed to stand on a box to see over the podium when he gave  his “radical” speech.

Milton Friedman was against corporations giving any money to charity

Milton Friedman was against corporations giving any money to charity

Milton Friedman had a lot of ideas that most people still have trouble accepting. For example, he believed that corporations should not give any money to charity. He felt that companies have no right to give away money that actually belongs to the stockholders. If a company has extra cash and cannot come up with a good investment, then the company should return that money to the stockholders as a dividend. When the stockholders receive the money then they can decide how to spend their own money. They may want to give it to charity or they may not want to. In any case, the shareholders should have the personal freedom to decide what to do with their money.

At the end of a long day, we all escorted Milton Friedman back to the tiny Economics building at Duke. (Minuscule compared to the enormous facilities Duke provided for Chemistry, Law and Medicine.  In those days, most Duke students looked down on the pursuits  of Business or Economics ).

In the 1970s a lot of Duke University students were hostile towards Business & Economics.

In the 1970s a lot of Duke University students were hostile towards Business & Economics.

The Economics building had a coffee room where Milton Friedman graciously spent time chatting with the Economics students while he waited for the car which would take him to the airport.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there is free coffee.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there is free coffee.

By the big coffee pot in the Economics building, there was a jar where people were supposed to put in 25 cents whenever they had cup of coffee. (Obviously there has been a lot of inflation since then).  Over the pot one of the Economics Professors had put up a large typed sign. It reminded people to put in 25 cents, and complained that the majority of people were taking coffee and depositing nothing. The sign stated, “As Milton Friedman says there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Underneath the typed sign, someone had scrawled in magic marker, “But there is free coffee!” Milton Friedman laughed at the graffiti as he took his cup of coffee. I don’t remember if he put 25 cents in the jar, but I don’t think he did.

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