Do you agree with Milton Friedman's statement: "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself"?

Thank you for the question.

This quote is from Ch.1 of Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. The chapter, entitled “The Relation between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom,” is a tour-de-force of propagandized half-truths. In one unsupported claim after another, Friedman insists a specific flavor of economic freedom that he believes necessary is more important to personal liberty than political or civic freedoms. He doesn’t offer any real data on this, he just keeps repeating this claim over and over again, thus generating what is called an “illusory truth effect.” Friedman — along with many other neoliberal evangelists — does this a lot in his writing and speaking: and many people have been hoodwinked into believing neoliberal propaganda extolling market fundamentalism as a consequence of precisely this technique.

The reality, however, is that political freedoms (i.e. civil liberties, and strong civic institutions that protect those rights, etc.) facilitate smoothly running, productive, wealth-creating market-centric economic systems, which in turn can — with the right political economy in place — facilitate economic freedoms supportive of civil society. It is a symbiotic relationship, which is likely why ALL of the most successful economies in the world have been (and still are) “mixed economies.” That is what the actual evidence supports — and not Milton Friedman’s version of laissez faire. Interestingly, Friedman actually hints at this symbiosis in the referenced chapter (describing the failure of freedom in fascist States like Nazi Germany that nevertheless had competitve free enterprise), he just ignores his own observations about it in favor of his preferred — and unsupported — conclusions. To do this, Friedman constantly makes untrue claims, for example: “there are only two ways of co-ordinating the economic activities of millions” (incorrect, there are many more ways…but those alternatives don’t serve Friedman’s arguments); “The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal” (incorrect, whoever has the biggest marketing budget — or most persuasive advertising — can undermine all competition…and that marketing can indeed rely on coercion through fear-mongering); “It is a mark of the political freedom of a capitalist society that men can openly advocate and work for socialism” (incorrect, it is a mark of a strong civil society that folks can advocate for a particular ideology…and much of civil society in capitalist countries was strengthened by socialist efforts, see How_Socialism_Saved_Capitalism_From_Itself.pdf).

As to this specific quote, it is nested in the context of Friedman’s belief that: “So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another in respect of most of his activities.” Friedman believed that markets protected all the players involved from coercion. The problem, of course, is that they really don’t. Billion-dollar marketing campaigns can deceive consumers into buying things they don’t want or need, and then become addicted to/dependent on those products. Business owners can coerce workers into horrible working conditions, and keep them there with subsistence wages. Activist shareholders can coerce businesses into really bad business decisions (for the longterm viability of the business itself, for consumers, for workers, etc.). And of course this doesn’t even touch on the horrific negative externalities of a given industry (like Oil & Gas, or Big Tobacco, or Industrial Agriculture, etc.). You see the problem? Capitalist markets alone don’t do squat for the supportive conditions of liberty itself…in fact, they can quickly undermine it (research “resource curse” countries for examples of this).

So Friedman’s assertion about arguments “against the free market” not appreciating freedom is simply an ideological distortion: because Friedman badly wants capitalist markets to fundamentally equate freedom, he assumes anyone opposed to them must be opposed to freedom.

In any case, to dig more deeply into this topic, I recommend reading this essay:

The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty.pdf

My 2 cents.


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