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Friedman and Socialism

June 10, 2005

On an email list, Milton Friedman was referred to as a socialist, and Pete Boettke responded,

Let's be honest with ourselves. Friedman is not a socialist, he is a free market advocate who is thinking pragmatically and not just on first principles. He agrees with you that if we could abolish the state in education we would be better off, but since that is not going to happen tomorrow he is thinking of marginal steps that could be made that would move the ball forward. We can disagree with him, but what possible gain is to labeling him something which he is obviously not and when we do so just reinforces our isolation in the intellectual world?

In my view, socialism is best defined along the lines Hoppe did in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (p. 20), that is, as institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims. This definition seems to get at the essence of what socialism is; it is basically public, or institutionalized, crime. Applied literally, any state at all, even a mininal one, is "socialistic" to a certain degree, since states necessarily commit aggression. Therefore, according to this definition, anyone other than an anarcho-libertarian is to a degree a socialist--even a minimal stateser. Certainly all those outside the anarchist/minarchist camps are advocates of socialist policies and institutions, to a degree. As far as I know, Friedman advocates and has played a role in instituting various measures that amount to institutionalized aggression against private property, e.g., income tax withholding, the "negative" income tax, educational vouchers (arguably), etc.

These measures are clearly socialistic as are, no doubt, others Friedman advocates, so whether he is "a socialist" or not I do not know, but he seems at least to be an advocate of some socialistic policies. Like many people, he is a mixed bag--he advocates many libertarian institutions, but dilutes this by also advocating some socialistic ones. Now he is certainly not the more extreme or principled or consistent type of socialist that advocates full-blown socialism.

socialism_graphIf you had to draw a graph, I would say the degree of socialism increases monotonically as the size of the state one advocates increases, where the left side would be zero socialism corresponding to zero state (anarchy), and the right side is 100% socialism corresponding to extreme communism or totalitarianism. Anarcho-libertarians are at the left axis. Close to them, with a small degree of socialism, are minarchists. Next you would have classical liberals and Friedmanesque mainstream free market advocates. Then you have your welfare state/mixed economy types, followed by more outright advocates of full-blown socialism, commies, and totalitarians. (See this amateur graph illustrating this.)

What we have "to gain" by admitting this, other than accuracy, honesty, and truth, I am not sure. Are these not enough? Does everything have to be gauged by strategic considerations? I think not.One other point. While I cannot help but admire Friedman's general pro-free market message and work, I was struck by a passage in something he wrote in his July 1991 Liberty article, "Say "No" to Intolerance". I don't have a copy any more (if anyone does, please fax it to me at 281-966-6988 and I can post it) but I recall he said that he was in favor of liberty and tolerance of differing views and behavior because we cannot know that the behavior we want to outlaw is really bad. In other words, the reason we should not censor dissenting ideas is not the standard libertarian idea that holding or speaking is not aggression, but because the we can't be sure the ideas are wrong. This implies that if we could know for sure what is right and wrong, it might be okay to legislate morality, to outlaw immoral or "bad" actions. This line of thinking has always bothered me a great deal, more so than the fact that Friedman, like most free market proponents, compromises on this or that concrete issue. 

For some discussion of Friedman's libertarian views, see Rothbard's 1971 piece Milton Friedman Unraveled, and Laurence Vance, The Curse of the Withholding Tax. Update: see also Hoppe, "The Western State as a Paradigm: Learning from History"; Friedman, Milton and Block, Walter, "Fanatical, Not Reasonable: A Short Correspondence Between Walter Block and Milton Friedman (on Friedrich Hayek)."

Update: I have located a copy of the article; it is here. In this article, Friedman writes:

I regard the basic human value that underlies my own [libertarian] beliefs as tolerance, based on humility. I have no right to coerce someone else, because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong. ... If we see someone doing something wrong, someone starting to sin (to use a theological tern) let alone just make a simple mistake, how do we justify not initiating coercion? Are we not sinning if we don't stop him? Only two bases for a negative answer occur to me that make any sense. One--which I regard largely as largely an evasion--is that there's no virtue in his not sinning if he's not free to sin. That may be true. But then, that doesn't apply to me. It may be no virtue for him. That doesn't mean I should let him sin: am I not sinning when I let him sin? How do I justify letting him sin? I believe that the more persuasive answer is, can I be sure he's sinning? Can I be sure that I am right and he is wrong? That I know what sin is?

Note also that this article is one of the sources where Friedman alleges Mises stormed out of the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in 1947, during a discussion about the progressive income tax, exclaiming, "You're all a bunch of socialists." He also reiterates his positivist methodology, and opposition to Misesian praxeology in economics and Randian principle in libertarianism and philosophy. Based on his "tolerant" (read: unprincipled) views, he again reiterates his support for educational vouchers and the negative income tax. Friedman was a great libertarian (in fact he was one of the main three or four influences on my own libertarian development), but this is not him at his best.

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