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Rose Friedman, Economist and Collaborator, Dies at 98

Published: August 18, 2009

Rose Friedman, a free-market economist whose extraordinary collaboration with her husband, Milton, proved essential to his Nobel-prize-winning career, died Tuesday at her home in Davis, Calif. Her birth records have been lost, but her family said she was probably 98.

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Free to Choose Media

Milton and Rose Friedman in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

The cause was heart failure, according to a statement approved by the family and issued by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by Milton and Rose Friedman in 1996 to promote school vouchers and other school-choice policies.

Rose Director, as she was known after her family emigrated to the United States from Russia, met Milton Friedman in 1932 when they were both graduate students at the University of Chicago. They wed six years later, and their marriage lasted 68 years, until Mr. Friedman’s death in 2006.

A Nobel laureate and a giant of 20th-century economics, Mr. Friedman was a libertarian thinker who believed that government had an obligation to clear a path for markets and that economic freedom was crucial to a free society. His work provided a fundamental stanchion of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the administration of Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

“On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood,” he wrote in his influential 1962 manifesto, “Capitalism and Freedom,” “so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.”

The book was written with the assistance of his wife, to whom Mr. Friedman never wavered in giving full credit as a collaborator. Ms. Friedman’s early economics research on consumer spending data found its way into her husband’s early book “A Theory of the Consumption Function.”

They wrote other books together, including “Free to Choose” (1980), an explication of free-market theory for a general audience, which was published in conjunction with a 10-part series on the Public Broadcasting Service; “The Tyranny of the Status Quo,” an argument for amending the Constitution to constrain the scope of government (1982); and “Two Lucky People” (1998), a dual memoir, which discusses their remarkable partnership.

“Econ-nerds through and through,” David Brooks called the couple, reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review and citing Mr. Friedman’s wistful remark, “I can recall many a pleasant summer evening discussing consumption data and theory in front of a blazing fire.”

They were known for being both romantically and intellectually suited to each other, often appearing in public holding hands, and though often debating — Ms. Friedman was known as the less compromising of the two — rarely, if ever bickering. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2006, only a few months before her husband died, Ms. Friedman said the 2003 invasion of Iraq created the first major argument of their life together. She was in favor; he was not.

“We have disagreed on little things, obviously — such as, I don’t want to go out to dinner, he wants to go out — but big issues, this is the first one,” she said.

Ms. Friedman’s contribution to the couple’s work was “not so much in technical economic writing, but on the policy side,” said Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics at the University of Chicago, who was a student of Mr. Friedman’s and a longtime friend of the couple. “It was an extremely close intellectual fellowship, and she was not someone who got credit for things she didn’t do. They discussed ideas constantly. Her feelings about the importance of private markets, opposition to big government, were even stronger than his. Her lasting influence will be as a collaborator, but she was a major contributor to the collaboration, and that’s a significant legacy.”

She was born in a village in what is now Ukraine, probably in the month of December, either in 1911, as she recalled in “Two Lucky People,” or 1910, as her family said in the statement released this week.

When she was 2, just before the onset of World War I, her family joined many other Jews in leaving Russia for the United States. They settled in Portland, Ore., where her father was a peddler and later owned a small general store. She spent two years at Reed College in Portland before transferring to the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, later completing all the required work for a Ph.D. except a dissertation.

Ms. Friedman is survived by a daughter, Janet; a son, David; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“I was smart enough to know that he was smarter,” Ms. Friedman said about her husband in a 1999 interview with The American Enterprise.

Asked if she ever felt overshadowed, she responded: “No, I’ve always felt that I’m responsible for at least half of what he’s gotten.”

She added: “Every time he had to go somewhere to change his job, I gave up my job. I didn’t feel that I was giving up anything. It seemed to me that that was the way it should be. He was the main income-bringer. It was his profession that was important. So I never felt neglected; I feel that I have much of the responsibility for his success.”