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The Inanity of Milton Friedman, Part One

December 8, 2017

In Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking we are doing a reading group with Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and Capitalism & Slavery by Eric Williams. Cathy O’Neill has suggested that we find something to do with Milton Friedman other than hate on him and look for good things in what he says. So far, they are few and far between, but the atrocities are extreme. It’s like the banality of Franz Schalling, only Friedman has allowed the GOP to do his dirty work, while he has simply written the Bible. Honestly, the best thing I’ve encountered so far was pointed out by the pseudonymous member of the group who helped me with my storage, and it’s not until chapter 2 (the first session covered the introduction and first chapter of both books; chapters 2 and 3 of each are to be discussed on December 17), on page 30, in which he supports government involvement to prevent the pollution of a stream, despite the fact that Friedman’s disciples want to gut or completely destroy the Environmental Protection Agency. The primary problem with Friedman is his use straw man arguments for the side he argues against and the opposite for his side: presenting only the most positive and difficult to argue aspects of what he presents and ignoring the downsides.

Here is my take on some of the most disastrous claims in the introduction and first chapter (page numbers from the 40th Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2002).

The first serious red flag I encountered was on page 4 of the introduction. Here Friedman attacks uniform standards imposed by government and argues that this would bring all down standards to the bare minimum. This is totally contradictory to the capitalist model of competition. It’s nonsensical that just putting a floor to how bad corporate standards could be would lower standards. It’s the tired argument that the minimum wage should be a penny an hour, even though if businesses are already paying the lowest wage by law, what would prevent them from paying lower? It is not rational to argue against a minimum wage when the minimum wage now fails to provide a decent standard of living.

On page 10, Friedman rightly states that capitalism is not the only condition of freedom, that capitalism was found in fascist Germany, Italy, Spain, but they were not free. He doesn’t (at least not here) go into what the other conditions necessary for freedom are besides capitalism. He does not, however, take the bait of his disciples, who say “National Socialists were socialists–it’s in the name,” yet will say “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea” is not a democracy, which is, of course, a denial of the historical fact that the socialists were initially sheepdogged into the party, then annihilated in the Night of the Long Knives (Jun 30-Jul 2, 1934).

On the top of page 13: “Literally millions of people are involved with providing one another with their daily bread, let alone their yearly automobiles. The challenge to the believer in liberty is to reconcile this widespread interdependence with individual freedom.” Translation: “the challenge is to explain why these millions deserve to live impoverished lifestyles that impinge on the freedom of the idle mega-rich.”

On page 14, he admits to the problem of capitalism leading to monopolies, which was a target of Marx, but he promises to deal with it in a later chapter.

On page 15, he says “Underlying most arguments againt the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” This is the last sentence of the paragraph, and he moves on after that, failing to provide any support whatsoever for this claim. It is true enough, if we accept that his definition of freedom, which he never does define, is “the freedom of those who own the means of production to exploit those without capital and extract the value of their labor for a profit” then yes, he is right. I for one, certainly don’t believe in freedom of that nature, but to me, that’s what it appears his definition of capitalism is.

On page 16, Friedman says, “there can be many millionaires in a large economy.” Does he define what he means by “many?” Of course not! Five billionaires now own more wealth than half the world, so I question this unsupported claim.

On the bottom of the same page, the last paragraph opens with two false statements: “In order for men to advocate anything, they must in the first place be able to earn a living.” The Occupier who suggested the book said that we were reading this as “archaeology,” the roots of the GOP Tax Scam, and this seems to be the root of “Delete your blog!” and people telling me that I shouldn’t be allowed to run for office. Some have been so fascist to say that I should not be allowed to vote. The second sentence says that this is problematic in a socialist society. Every time Friedman uses forms of the word “socialist,” he is clearly describing Stalinism, which is state capitalism, not socialism.

Even within this framework, Friedman raises problems created by capitalism by boiling everything down to the ability to raise the funds (17), which is a reality that makes capitalism so stifling. He is essentially saying that political freedom is created by wealth. Therefore, those without wealth lack political freedom as a direct result of capitalism, but Friedman seems oblivious to this issue.

Page 18 is a total mess of terrible ideas. “Make the advocacy of radical causes sufficiently remunerative, and the supply of advocates will be unlimited.” Clearly he is oblivious that the point that radical causes are to provide to those without resources, hence any kind or remunerativeness would be akin to the shelter-industrial complex, in which shelters are more remunerative than low income housing.

“It is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility” (18), which is what he accuses of socialism at the bottom of page 16.

According to Friedman, inequality of wealth preserves political freedom through patronage, and how even the most outlandish ideas get their voice through patronage (17). He fails to see that convincing a rich person that an idea is worth promoting is a problem in and of itself that inhibits freedom. “In a free market society it is enough to have the funds,” (18) Friedman smugly says. As someone with a film degree who has been writing screenplays for years, I can tell you that not having funds limits freedom, not adds to it. Persuading a wealthy patron to read the scripts that I’ve written has proven impossible in the twenty years I’ve been trying. Friedman’s disciples tell me that this is proof that they’re no good, but “I choose not to read it, therefore it is badly written” is circular reasoning, but it has Friedman’s pontifications as “support.” this page could be summed up as, “Those who do not have the funds, and cannot find a patron to supply the funds, do not deserve to have a voice.” This is not freedom; this is the stifling of it. This seems to be the very foundation of Friedman’s ideas–that those born with the most toys should be free to keep them, and to hell with anyone else. He never seems to care about the freedom of those who cannot afford to buy it.

On the top of page 19, Friedman claims that those who favor both socialism and freedom haven’t faced up to the supposed contradictions between them. This is patently false now and most likely false in 1962. As Mikhail Bakunin famously declared, “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” Everything Friedman has said about freedom so far has really been privilege and injustice, and that’s what we see in the Ryan-McConnell Congress.

Some of what he says is self-contradictory gibberish that betrays his biases:

One may believe, as I do, that communism would destroy all of our freedoms, one may be opposed to it as firmly and as strongly as possible, and yet, at the same time, also believe that in a free society it is intolerable for a man to be prevented from making voluntary arrangements with others that are mutually attractive because he believes in or is trying to promote communism.

How does this sentence make any sense, especially if we use the standard definition of “communism,” which is “an economic system in which the means of production are owned by the workers?” It makes only a little more sense if we interpret communism as the oppressive totalitarian state that was Stalinist Russia, but even then, it’s completely self-contradictory. It’s as though he just threw a bunch of words together that sounded like they were on topic. It’s similar to the gibberish of Donald Trump, but more intelligent sounding. At the very best, he is making a straw man argument that socialism and freedom are inherently contradictory, which is not going to persuade anyone who is not already convinced.

On the last page (21) I take issue with two of his comments in particular. First he claims that an impersonal market separates economic activities from political views. This is patently false in a world where people get fired for flipping off the president’s motorcade with their face unrecognizable. Finally, one of the most controversial statements for the alt banking reading was the claim, “the Negroes, the Jews, the foreign-born” should recognize “that the existence of the market has protected them from the attitudes of their fellow countrymen, they mistakenly attribute the residual discrimination to the market.” It seems extremely unlikely that Friedman has read Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery, which was first published about twenty years earlier by a man born only a year earlier than he was, who fought hard to keep the title he gave it because the entire book was focused on blacks (and others in the beginning) as commodities and as producers of capital, not on what it was like to be a slave. Indeed this is very reminiscent of the whitewashing that Nicole Aschoff mentions that was used by foundations to lure blacks away from the Communist Party.

As far as I can tell, Friedman is really concerned only about the freedom of those who can pay for it, which is a contradiction in itself. I may revise my interpretation of Friedman as I continue to read him, but he is making a very bad first impression. Marx made a bad impression on me, too, and if I’m ever able to get my old computers out of storage, I can show you the very negative assessment of The Communist Manifesto, which I thought was incitement to violence, that I wrote in college.

  1. joe permalink

    This was a refreshing read after seeing all the internet sheep who follow his ideas like gospel. Milton Friedman is one of my least favorite people to exist.

  2. Here is a link to a board about our discussion of Friedman and Williams. Rob Hollander’s post makes many good points about some of the further chapters that I don’t want to repeat in part 2 without giving him credit.

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