The Political Theory Consortium met last night for the third time this semester, to discuss Milton Friedman’s essay “The Relationship Between Political Freedom and Economic Freedom.” Friedman is best known as the twentieth century’s most persistent public voice for free market capitalism. This essay, published in 1962, begins from the premise that most intellectuals believe that politics and economics are “separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem, and material welfare an economic problem.” In response to this “delusion,” Friedman argues that the two are intricately linked, that only specific economic arrangements can foster particular political freedoms, and that “a society that is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom.”
I am skeptical about Friedman’s basic characterizations here. Our differing perceptions may stem in part from the fact that he’s writing as an economist and not a political theorist. I think one would be hard pressed to find a political theorist (in the twentieth century, at least, but going further back in the tradition as well) who saw economic conditions and political freedom as radically distinct. Of course, I may have already modified Friedman’s claim in talking about “economic conditions,” by which I mean people’s material well-being, and not “economic freedoms,” by which Friedman means the liberty to do business without government regulation. I also dispute Friedman’s conclusion that socialism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Again, though, I have in mind states like Sweden, England, Germany, France, and the Netherlands today, which all seem to do a decent job balancing the two. Friedman, in contrast, has in mind totalitarian socialist states such as the now defunct Soviet Union (he’s writing in the early ‘60s, so of course).
The debate last night was heated. There were some staunch Friedman defenders, who did a good job articulating the values that draw them to his approach. But there was also a general distrust, articulated by a number of participants, of any theory that does not seem to at least minimally account for issues of social justice. And of course, we went off a ways on the requisite tangent regarding whether there is any such thing as a “self made man” (or woman) in this day and age.
The question I put to the group, and keep coming back to in my own head, is what Friedman has to offer a person who is not sold on his very limited conception of personal freedom (i.e. free enterprise, or the freedom from government regulation of economic activities), as well as a person who does not accept his account of socialism as contemporarily relevant. In Modern Political Thought this week we read Hobbes. It’s entirely possible to read Hobbes as kind of paranoid and fearful, which explains why he advocates an absolute sovereign power (and a monarch, to boot) as the source of order and thus some semblance of peace in the land. Needless to say, the picture of government he paints is not especially attractive to modern democratic citizens. And yet, we can still learn so much from Hobbes about conceptions of human nature and society, theories of sovereignty, latent notions of what the “various contentments of life” might be, the relationship between autonomous states, etc.
I want to give Friedman the benefit of the doubt, but I’m curious how much punch this account of the benefits of free market capitalism packs, given the intellectual and historical glossing he seems to do here (and I’m not alone in thinking so. In an obituary for Friedman, Paul Krugman sang his praises as an economist, but voiced a lot of skepticism about his authenticity and accuracy in his role as a public intellectual). Thoughts??