I had not heard from Jeffrey Friedman for several years when, last Sunday evening, a mutual friend told me that he suddenly had died. Jeff was a 63-year-old political theorist, academic, author, and editor of the journal Critical Review whose five years as an assistant professor at Barnard College in the early 2000s partially overlapped with my time across the street at Columbia University. For eight months during my senior year at Columbia, Jeff figured prominently in my life as a teacher, mentor, and collaborator. Our friendship was something of an accident—but a happy one.
Jeff was a voracious reader, clear writer, and sharp intellect whose biting wit enlivened any discussion. As I brood over his passing, I am amazed at his continuing influence on a generation of scholars and journalists who, like me, interacted with him only as undergraduate students or as participants in the summer seminar he used to hold. Jeff imparted lessons not easily forgotten. He formed a community where none existed. His intellectual intensity made him a great teacher.
When I was in college, there were two conservatives on campus. Then the other one graduated. It was this older conservative who more than anyone tutored me in journalism and introduced me to the professional networks of intellectual conservatism and the conservative movement. He connected me with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which sponsored my internship at National Review and my postgraduate fellowship at the Weekly Standard. And he recommended that I meet Jeff, who invited me to participate in a Critical Review seminar held on the New York University campus in the summer of 2002.
What I remember most clearly about that week 20 years ago was the enormous amount of reading Jeff assigned. He wanted to cover philosophy, politics, economics, and psychology in a few days and, somehow, he did. He would weave together John Rawls with Joseph Schumpeter, Murray Rothbard with Robert Wright, Max Weber with Theda Skocpol. As a rising senior and history major, I was unfamiliar with many of the texts that Jeff referenced and arguments that he rebutted. But I couldn’t help being impressed by his range. In the awkward silences that greeted Jeff whenever he asked a question none of us could answer, I would look down at my papers and underline the titles of books I needed to read and the names I needed to know.
Jeff was a libertarian. But he was not satisfied with libertarian dogma, and he criticized the idea of man as a self-interested rational actor. His great theme was ignorance: not only the public ignorance of electorates but also the individual ignorance of experts bound by the constraints of ideology and groupthink. The state, he said, operated according to the fashionable desires of bureaucrats who were free from democratic accountability.
Such “accountability” was itself a slippery concept. It was hard for either politicians or journalists to determine the meaning of elections and the nature of mandates. Electoral majorities are composites of millions upon millions of people with millions upon millions of concerns, fears, attitudes, hopes, and dreams. Making sense of this cacophony is impossible.
Jeff preferred markets to government not because markets are more rational or more efficient but because they are easier to escape. Markets allow for a greater possibility of exit. And the ability to leave counterproductive, hazardous, or perverse conditions is a guarantor of freedom that also creates opportunities for innovation and improvement. Jeff’s classroom at NYU was where I first heard of A.O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, and where I first encountered Schumpeter’s aphorism, “The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette.”
The company and setting of the seminar were as important as the curriculum. The men and women around the table that year would be a part of my future. As I conjure up the small room in my mind’s eye, I see Kelly Jane Torrance, now at the New York Post; Noah Pollak, a writer and activist and longtime comrade; Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute; and Will Wilkinson, head of policy at TBD. At some point I roped my friend Telis Demos, now at the Wall Street Journal, into Jeff’s crew. I made the most of NYU’s proximity to The Strand bookstore, where I came across copies of Charles Krauthammer’s Cutting Edges and David Brooks’s edited collection of conservative journalism, Backward and Upward. I would spend the day listening to Jeff critique Robert Nozick, then read Krauthammer, Brooks, Andrew Ferguson, and John Podhoretz on the train to Morningside Heights.
Jeff founded Critical Review while he was a graduate student in the late 1980s. When I met him, he was looking for ways his ideas could reach a larger audience. Near the end of the seminar, he told me that he and his students had been thinking of launching a campus magazine, but the project hadn’t been developed. I expressed interest—editing a magazine was my great ambition. But Jeff had a lot of friends, many acolytes, and plenty of potential editors. Before we went any further assembling a publication, Jeff told me, I needed to meet another of his former students, a recent graduate of Harvard who was then working at the Council on Foreign Relations. So, one night in the late summer or early fall, I had dinner with Reihan Salam.
Jeff and I went ahead with the magazine. We called it The Dissident: Politics and Culture from New Perspectives. Amazingly, its website remains up. I see that it ran for three issues, but I was involved only with Volume One, Number One, published in the spring of 2003. Producing the Dissident took time. Jeff had classes to teach, and I had classes to take—or, more accurately in my final semester, to skip. I had a part-time job with Rich Lowry and wrote for and helped to edit a section of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Also, there were many different neighborhood bars to crawl. To keep up editorial momentum, I enrolled in one of Jeff’s classes. Sometimes we would discuss the magazine over dinner at the Columbia Cottage Chinese restaurant.
Eventually, 40 pages of print journalism came together. When I look at my physical copy, I see that its typeface and design hold up, even if the pagination is somewhat hard to follow. The Dissident was launched at the beginning of the second Iraq war, and both the front- and back-page articles take up aspects of the debate over the invasion. I am pleasantly surprised to see that my contribution deals with neoconservatism, but also slightly embarrassed that I wrote that Irving Kristol “invented the term.” Michael Harrington, of course, used “neoconservative” as an insult in a 1973 essay for Dissent.
Jeff’s rolodex was vast. He solicited articles from author Stephen Schwartz and advertisements from Princeton University Press. The issue’s main feature is Jeff’s lengthy essay on why John Rawls’s philosophy provides a better justification for capitalism than Robert Nozick’s. Here, too, Jeff wonders if ignorance might be made to work for humanity rather than against it. Jeff knew his essay demanded a lot from its readers. He wrote toward the end of his piece, “If there is an alternative to pondering the complicated social world for as abnormally long as you have just been asked to do, an alternative that spares people the need to be well informed and to reason clearly about abstract and indirect causal connections, wouldn’t it be wiser to favor that alternative than to put our faith in voters who barely know anything about the social world at all?” For Jeff, that alternative was market exchange.
Jeff and I remained distant friends after I graduated. We emailed from time to time. I helped recruit him into the pages of the Weekly Standard, where he wrote that the bond ratings agencies were behind the housing debacle and Global Financial Crisis. Jeff was alarmed by the revival of political correctness on campus in 2014 and by the (related) rise of Donald Trump the following year. I regret not keeping up with him as I might have. I never got the chance to thank him for his work and his counsel.
But I am also thankful for having had the opportunity to know and to learn from him. The life of Jeffrey Friedman is a reminder that the best teachers do not simply instruct. They do not merely exhort. The great teachers do more than convene, interrogate, introduce, and inspire. The great teachers build worlds.