The Art And Science Of Milton Friedman's Rhetoric

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 6, 2010


George Shultz liked to say of Milton Friedman that “everyone likes to debate Milton . . . when he leaves the room.” The statement was a tribute to Friedman’s prowess as a debater and as a rhetorician. Three videos make clear why Friedman was so good at making and advancing arguments.

The first one, is via an old post by Will Wilkinson. Watch:

Wilkinson points out why Friedman was so effective in this clip:

. . . 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.

The second video shows why it is necessary at times to dispute the premise of an argument:

Note that Friedman refuses to buy into Phil Donahue’s assumptions, but rather, challenges them from the very outset. Clearly, Donahue is taken aback by this–which allows Friedman time to further advance his arguments. Again, he is unapologetic about his beliefs, and makes Donahue question his own assumptions. Of course, we know that Donahue never changed his mind about his political and economic beliefs, but Friedman succeeded in planting a seed of doubt in Donahue’s mind, which is more than other people achieved.

Finally, the third video comes from Don Boudreaux:

Again, note how genial Friedman is here; he clearly understands the benefits of killing a debating foe with kindness. And again, note how he advances his arguments without hesitation or apology, and does so by inviting listeners to consider opposing arguments in alternative circumstances and scenarios. This reveals another aspect of Friedman’s forensic skills–his abilities as a teacher. Friedman didn’t view debate as a contest to be won, but rather, as an intellectual activity to delight in. He happily took the opportunity to discuss and teach important issues, and let the point-scoring aspect of any debate take care of itself. Interestingly enough, this ostensibly disinterested approach to “winning” a debate actually helped Friedman, you know, win debates.

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