Economic Thoughts, Part V: The Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom

This posting is Part V in a series of postings about economic thoughts.
This posting contains excerpts from the Introduction of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s 1962 classic book, Capitalism & Freedom in which he begins a discussion about the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom:

…The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather “What can I and my compatriots do through government” to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and, above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?…the greatest threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom…
How can we benefit from the promise of government while avoiding the threat to freedom? Two broad principles embodied in our Constitution give an answer…
First, the scope of government must be limited. Its major function must be to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets…By relying primarily on voluntary co-operation and private enterprise, in both economic and other activities, we can insure that the private sector is a check on the powers of the governmental sector…
The second broad principle is that government power must be dispersed…If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington. If I do not like what my local community does…I can move to another local community, and though few may take this step, the mere possibility acts as a check…If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations…
…The power to do good is also the power to do harm; those who control the power today may not tomorrow; and, more important, what one man regards as good, another may regard as harm…
The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralizing governmental power. But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilization…have never come from centralized government…[Columbus, Newton, Leibnitz, Einstein, Bohr, Shakespeare, Milton, Pasternak, Whitney, McCormick, Edison, Ford, Nightingale, Schweitzer] achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity.
Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action…
This book’s…major theme is the role of competitive capitalism – the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market – as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom…
As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically. In political matters, it supported the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions, reduction in the arbitrary power of the state, and protection of the civil freedoms of individuals…
…especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis…The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. The nineteenth-century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor…state intervention and paternalism…
…Jealous of liberty, and hence fearful of centralized power, whether in governmental or private hands, the nineteenth-century liberal favored political decentralization. Committed to action and confident of the beneficence of power as long as it is in the hands of a government ostensibly controlled by the electorate, the twentieth-century liberal favors centralized government. He will resolve any doubt about where power should be located in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and of a world organization instead of a national government…

Part VI to follow…
For previous postings on Economic Thoughts, refer to:
Part I: What is Economics?
Part II: Myths About Markets
Part III: Why Policy Goals are Trumped by Incentives They Create & the Role of Knowledge in Economics
Part IV: The Abuse of Reason, Fallacies & Dangers of Centralized Planning, Prices & Knowledge, and Understanding Limitations

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doubled
doubled
14 years ago

An excellent read. In my mind , one of the reasons we are so fractured as a country right now is because some think the idea of equality (not just created equal , but equal outcomes) is more important than the idea of freedom. This leads to people being thought of not as individuals with fate in their own hands, but as groups that are to be manipulated against each other. This seems to lead to a top down political approach, as opposed to giving localalities and states the freedom to govern as they see fit. The ability to live in(move to)an area that is ‘comfortable’ for the individual is diminished when the ‘elites’ try to impose their views from a centralized authority. Interesting to note which party seems to love the idea of the U.N. and World Courts, the ultimate in top down governing.

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