Economic Thoughts, Part VII: The Role of Government in a Free Society

This posting is Part VII in a series of postings about economic thoughts.
This posting contains excerpts from Chapter 2 of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s 1962 classic book, Capitalism & Freedom in which he discusses the role of government in a free society:

…To the [nineteenth-century] liberal, the appropriate means are free discussion and voluntary co-operation, which implies that any form of coercion is inappropriate. The ideal is unanimity among responsible individuals achieved on the basis of free and full discussion. This is another way of expressing the goal of freedom…
From this standpoint, the role of the market…is that it permits unanimity without conformity; that it is a system of effectively proportional representation. On the other hand, the characteristic feature of action through explicitly political channels is that it tends to require or to enforce substantial conformity…the fact that the final outcome generally must be a law applicable to all groups, rather than separate legislative enactments for each “party” represented, means that proportional representation in its political version, far from permitting unanimity without conformity, tends toward ineffectiveness and fragmentation. It thereby operates to destroy any consensus on which unanimity with conformity can rest.
There are clearly some matters with respect to which effective proportional representation is impossible…With respect to such indivisible matters we can discuss, and argue, and vote. But having decided, we must conform. It is precisely the existence of such indivisible matters – protection of the individual and the nation from coercion are clearly the most basic – that prevents exclusive reliance on individual action through the market…
The use of political channels, while inevitable, tends to strain the social cohesion essential for a stable society. The strain is least if agreement for joint action need be reached only on a limited range of issues on which people in any event have common views. Every extension of the range of issues for which explicit agreement is sought strains further the delicate threads that hold society together…Fundamental differences in basic values can seldom if ever be resolved at the ballot box; ultimately they can only be decided, though not resolved, by conflict…
The widespread use of the market reduces the strain on the social fabric by rendering conformity unnecessary with respect to any activities it encompasses. The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement. In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society.
Unanimity is, of course, an ideal. In practice, we can afford neither the time nor the effort that would be required to achieve complete unanimity on every issue…We are thus led to accept majority rule in one form or another as an expedient. That majority rule is an expedient rather than itself a basic principle is clearly shown by the fact that our willingness to resort to majority rule, and the size of the majority we require, themselves depend on the seriousness of the issue involved. If the matter is of little moment and the minority has no strong feelings about being overruled, a bare plurality will suffice. On the other hand, if the minority feels strongly about the issue involved, even a bare majority will not do…
…a good society requires that its members agree on the general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules…most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly…no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions…But we cannot rely on custom or on this consensus alone to interpret and to enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules, and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play in the game.
The need for government in these respects arises because absolute freedom is impossible. However attractive anarchy may be as a philosophy, it is not feasible in a world of imperfect men…
The major problem in deciding the appropriate activities of government is how to resolve such conflicts among the freedom of different individuals…
…the organization of economic activity through voluntary exchange presumes that we have provided, through government, for the maintenance of law and order to prevent coercion of one individual by another, the enforcement of contracts voluntarily entered into, the definition of the meaning of property rights, the interpretation and enforcement of such rights, and the provision of a monetary system.
The role of government just considered is to do something that the market cannot do for itself, namely, to determine, arbitrate, and enforce the rules of the game…These all reduce to cases in which strictly voluntary exchange is either exceedingly costly or practically impossible. There are two general classes of such cases: monopoly and similar market imperfections, and neighborhood effects.
Exchange is truly voluntary only when nearly equivalent alternatives exist. Monopoly implies the absence of alternatives and thereby inhibits effective freedom of exchange…
When technical conditions make a monopoly the natural outcome of competitive market forces, there are only three alternatives that seem available: private monopoly, public monopoly, or public regulation. All three are bad so we must choose among evils…
In a rapidly changing society, however, the conditions making for technical monopoly frequently change and I suspect that both public regulation and public monopoly are likely to be less responsive to such changes in conditions, to be less readily capable of elimination, than private monopoly…
The choice between the evils of private monopoly, public monopoly, and public regulation cannot, however, be made once and for all, independently of the factual circumstances. If the technical monopoly is of a service or commodity that is regarded as essential and if its monopoly power is sizable, even the short-run effects of private unregulated monopoly may not be tolerable, and either public regulation or ownership may be a lesser evil…
Technical monopoly may on occasion justify a de facto public monopoly. It cannot by itself justify a public monopoly achieved by making it illegal for anyone else to compete…
A second general class of cases in which strictly voluntary exchange is impossible arises when actions of individuals have effects on other individuals for which it is not feasible to charge or recompense them. This is the problem of “neighborhood effects.” An obvious example is the pollution of a stream…
A less obvious example is the provision of highways…
Neighborhood effects impede voluntary exchange because it is difficult to identify the effects on third parties and to measure their magnitude; but this difficulty is present in governmental activity as well…when government engages in activities to overcome neighborhood effects, it will in part introduce an additional set of neighborhood effects by failing to charge or compensate individuals properly…Every act of government intervention limits the area of individual freedom directly and threatens the preservation of freedom indirectly…
Freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals. We do not believe in freedom for madmen or children. The necessity of drawing a line between responsible individuals and others is inescapable, yet it means that there is an essential ambiguity in our ultimate objective of freedom. Paternalism is inescapable for those whom we designate as not responsible…
The paternalistic ground for governmental activity is in many ways the most troublesome to a [nineteenth-century] liberal; for it involves the acceptance of a principle – that some shall decide for others – which he finds objectionable in most applications and which he rightly regards as a hallmark of his chief intellectual opponents, the proponents of collectivism…Yet there is no use pretending that problems are simpler than in fact they are. There is no avoiding the need for some measure of paternalism…There is no formula that can tell us where to stop. We must rely on our fallible judgment…We must put our faith, here as elsewhere, in a consensus reached by imperfect and biased men through free discussion and trial and error.
A government which maintained law and order, defined property rights, served as a means whereby we could modify property rights and other rules of the economic game, adjudicated disputes about the interpretation of the rules, enforced contracts, promoted competition, provided a monetary framework, engaged in activities to counter technical monopolies and to overcome neighborhood effects widely regarded as sufficiently important to justify governmental intervention, and which supplemented private charity and the private family in protecting the irresponsible, whether madman or child – such a government would clearly have important functions to perform…
Yet it is also true that such a government would have clearly limited functions and would refrain from a host of activities that are now undertaken by federal and state governments in the United States and their counterparts in other Western countries…

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

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klaus
klaus
15 years ago

You know, this is all very idyllic, and may have worked when we were all making our own clothes, baskets, and wooden tools. The problem with the circumstances described by Dr Friedman is that they are highly idealized. It’s like one of Ayn Rand’s novels: everyone is some sort of demi-god above the fray of ordinary human life. It used to be that conservatives prided themselves on being hard-headed and realistic, that they read their history and could scorn liberals as soft-headed and mushy thinkers. It seems like the pattern has reversed itself. I sure would like to live in Dr Friedman’s world where we all get along and no one tries to cheat, where “unanimity” is desireable because it’s possible. Unfortunately, I live in the real world, and I have yet to meet one an example of homo economicus rationalus. (My apologies to Prof McDonough who taught first-year Latin). What Dr Friedman fails to consider is the inherent inequality of most economic transactions in a complex society. Sorry, but I do not stand on equal terms with Microsoft should we disagree. And can I really go elsewhere? Sure, there’s Linux, but can you say we have Dr Friedman’s nearly equivalent alternatives to choose from? After all, this is what is needed for a truly voluntary exchange. And let’s pretend that business isn’t predatory. Perhaps not inherently, but in practice. Does Microsoft play fair? How about Wal-Mart? No, they use their size, their scale, and their money to bury any competition that may attempt to arise. Linux is free, and it still can’t compete evenly with Microsoft. Hate to keep using them as my only example, but it’s just so convenient. It’s also a very telling example of what happens when a business is truly successful. Bill Gates didn’t innovate,… Read more »

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