Economic Thoughts, Part VI: More on the Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom

This posting is Part VI in a series of postings about economic thoughts.
This posting contains excerpts from Chapter 1 of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s 1962 classic book, Capitalism & Freedom in which he continues a discussion about the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom:

It is widely believed that politics and economics are separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem…The thesis of this chapter is that such a view is a delusion…
Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensible means toward the achievement of political freedom.
The first of these roles of economic freedom needs special emphasis because intellectuals in particular have a strong bias against regarding this aspect of freedom as important…
Viewed as a means to the end of political freedom, economic arrangements are important because of their effect on the concentration or dispersion of power…competitive capitalism also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other…
Because we live in a largely free society, we tend to forget how limited is the span of time and the part of the globe for which there has ever been anything like political freedom: the typical state of mankind is tyranny, servitude, and misery. The nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the Western world stand out as striking exceptions to the general trend of historical development. Political freedom in this instance clearly came along with the free market and the development of capitalist institutions…
History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition…
The relation between political and economic freedom is complex and by no means unilateral…
As [nineteenth-century, not twentieth-century] liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements. Freedom as a value in this sense has to do with the interrelationship between people…in a society freedom has nothing to say about what an individual does with his freedom; it is not an all-embracing ethic…a major aim of the liberal is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with. The “really” important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a free society – what he should do with his freedom. There are thus two sets of values that a liberal will emphasize – the values that are relevant to relations among people, which is the context in which he assigns first priority to freedom; and the values that are relevant to the individual in the exercise of his freedom, which is the realm of individual ethics and philosophy.
The liberal conceives of men as imperfect human beings. He regards the problem of social organizations to be as much a negative problem of preventing “bad” people from doing harm as of enabling “good” people to do good…
The basic problem of social organization is how to co-ordinate the economic activities of large numbers of people. Even in relatively backward societies, extensive division of labor and specialization of function is required to make effective use of available resources. In advanced societies, the scale…is enormously greater…The challenge to the believer in liberty is to reconcile this widespread interdependence with individual freedom.
Fundamentally, there are only two ways of co-ordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion – the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals – the technique of the market place.
The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary – yet frequently denied – proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.
Exchange can therefore bring about co-ordination without coercion…
Specialization of function and division of labor would not go far if the ultimate productive unit were the household. In a modern society, we have gone much farther. We have introduced enterprises which are intermediaries between individuals in their capacities as suppliers of service and as purchasers of goods…money has been introduced as a means of facilitating exchange, and of enabling the acts of purchase and of sale to be separated into two parts…
…so in the complex enterprise and money exchange economy, co-operation is strictly individual and voluntary provided: (a) that enterprises are private, so that the ultimate contracting parties are individuals and (b) that individuals are effectively free to enter or not to enter into any particular exchange, so that every transaction is strictly voluntary…
The basic requisite is the maintenance of law and order to prevent physical coercion of one individual by another and to enforce contracts voluntarily entered into, thus giving substance to “private.” Aside from this, perhaps the most difficult problems arise from monopoly…and from “neighborhood effects.” [These problems will be addressed in a subsequent posting.]…
…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. The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal. The seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers to whom he can sell. The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on…the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.
Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it does this task so well. It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the “rules of the game” and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on. What the market does is reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby to minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game. The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity…
…Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce…The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated – a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.
Economic power can be widely dispersed…Political power, on the other hand, is more difficult to decentralize…if economic power is joined to political power, concentration seems almost inevitable. On the other hand, if economic power is kept in separate hands from political power, it can serve as a check and a counter to political power…
In a capitalist society, it is only necessary to convince a few wealthy people to get funds to launch any idea, however strange, and there are many such persons, many independent foci of support…
…the market breaks the vicious cycle and makes it possible ultimately to finance such ventures by small amounts from many people without first persuading them. There are no such possibilities in the socialist state; there is only the all-powerful state…
…freedom to advocate unpopular causes does not require that such advocacy be without cost. On the contrary, no society could be stable if advocacy of radical change was costless, much less subsidized. It is entirely appropriate that men make sacrifices to advocate causes in which they deeply believe. Indeed, it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility. What is essential is that the cost of advocating unpopular causes be tolerable and not prohibitive.
But we are not through yet. In a free market society, it is enough to have the funds…In a socialist society, it would not be enought to have the funds. The hypothetical supporter of socialism would have to persuade [various governmental agencies to provide materials and rights to him]…
…What is clear, however, is that there are very real difficulties in establishing institutions that will effectively preserve the possibility of dissent…none of the people who have been in favor of socialism and also in favor of freedom have really faced up to this issue, or made even a respectable start at developing the institutional arrangements that would permit freedom under socialism. By contrast, it is clear how a free market capitalist society fosters freedom.
No one who buys bread knows whether the wheat from which it is made was grown by a Communist or a Republican, by a constitutionalist or a Fascist, or, for that matter, by a Negro or a white. This illustrates how an impersonal market separates economic activities from political views and protects men from being discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity – whether these reasons are associated with their views or their color.
As this example suggests, the groups in our society that have the most at stake in the preservation and strengthening of competitive capitalism are those minority groups which can most easily become the object of the distrust and enmity of the majority…

Part VII 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
Part V: The Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom

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klaus
klaus
15 years ago

Sorry, Dr Friedman. There is a flaw in your reasoning. I quote: “Fundamentally, there are only two ways of co-ordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion – the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals – the technique of the market place.” There is a third way. It is a mixture of gov’t activism with free markets. In fact, one could argue that this is the ONLY type of market that has ever existed, since there has never been a time in Western History of the last 500 years (or longer?) when the gov’t has not actively intervened in the market. Even in 19th Century America, when the Titans of Industry bestrode the world, they relied very, very heavily on the gov’t to tilt the playing field. First, there was the 60% of railroads paid for by gov’t, whether state or federal. Then, there were the high tarriffs that were a large plank in the Republican platform for the last part of the century. This ensured that those Titans, who could bend the world to their will, weren’t bothered by something so petty as foreign competition while they were building their Industrial Empires. Overall, I respect Dr Friedman, but this sort of argument is very shoddy. It’s a great example of either: a) deliberate deception; b) arranging your facts to fit your ideology. c) not seeing a problem because your ideology says it can’t exist. Problem #2. “The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary – yet frequently denied – proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.” The proposition is valid, and true, but it rests on… Read more »

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