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.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center