Issues & Insights

Friedman, Freedom And ‘The Road to Serfdom’

reason.com

 

I just came across an article which reminded me that Nov. 16 was the 15th anniversary of the death of Milton Friedman, one of the past century’s greatest advocates of freedom. As someone who has followed his writing for most of my adult life, I can barely believe he has been gone that long. On the other hand, the abyss between the freedom he advocated and the world we now inhabit is so vast, I can barely believe he has only been gone that long.

That great gap makes me believe that now would be a good time to think back to some of Friedman’s insightful words. But his prolific output makes it hard to choose (rather than “Free to Choose“) among them when faced with limited space. How much further we have moved along what Friedrich Hayek called “The Road to Serfdom” since then, however, suggests one good source – Friedman’s “Introduction” to the University of Chicago Press’ 50th anniversary edition of the book.

The promotion of collectivism is combined with the profession of individualist values.

Individualism … can be achieved only in a liberal order in which government activity is limited primarily to establishing the framework within which individuals are free to pursue their own objectives.

The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovering for achieving participatory democracy.

Unfortunately, the relation between the ends and the means remains widely misunderstood. Many of those who profess the most individualistic objectives support collectivist means without recognizing the contradiction.

To understand why it is that ‘good’ men in positions of power will produce evil, while the ordinary many without power but able to engage in voluntary cooperation with his neighbors will produce good, requires analysis and thought, subordinating the emotions to the rational faculty.

The argument for collectivism is simple, if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument.

Experience … has strongly confirmed Hayek’s central insight – that coordination of men’s activities through central direction and through voluntary cooperation are roads going in very different directions: the first to serfdom, the second to freedom. That experience has also strongly reinforced a secondary theme – central direction is also a road to poverty for the ordinary man; voluntary cooperation, a road to plenty.

The battle for freedom must be won over and over again. The socialists in all parties to whom Hayek dedicated his book must once again be persuaded or defeated if they and we are to remain free men.

The bulk of the intellectual community almost automatically favors any expansion of government power so long as it is advertised as a way to protect individuals from big bad corporations, relieve poverty, protect the environment, or promote ‘equality.’

It is only a little overstated to say that we preach individualism and competitive capitalism, and practice socialism.

It is amazing how dead-on both Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and Milton Friedman’s appreciative and insightful “Introduction” remain about Americans’ current situation, unfortunately moving back down the wrong road in many ways. But I find the last two quotations particularly ominous. Many today have moved to the point, in their confused understanding, that they want to not only practice socialism, particularly when they think its selective application will benefit them, but preach it as well. But that “progressive” regression into utopian thinking which actually produces dystopian results also means that the benefits from renewed attention to the lessons for liberty to both Hayek and Friedman are greater, as well. 

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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1 comment

  • Dr. Friedman proved himself to be a master epigrammatist on many occasions. His economic insight was equaled by his skill at producing a compact, piercing phrase. He scored highest with one I can’t remember verbatim, but the thrust of it was this: It’s less important to elect good people to office than it is to create incentives that will cause bad people in office to do the right thing. I miss him.

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