Friday, November 30, 2018

Owning Milton Friedman with Facts and Logic (Part Two)

Welcome to part two of my rebuttal to Milton Friedman's argument against socialism. For those not aware, for this post and the previous one, I'm responding to the first chapter of economist Milton Friedman's book Capitalism and Freedom (the entirety of the chapter can be read here). If you haven't yet read part one, make sure to do that before starting on this installment.

With that out of the way, let's get going. When we last left off, our pal Milton was giving us a wildly inaccurate description of capitalism and had just argued that capitalism is actually great for employees because if their boss underpays them or mistreats them, no problem! They can just quit. From there
we move on to a new line of argument: "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself." Friedman elaborates:
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. It is, in political terms, a system of proportional representation. Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of tie he wants and get it; he does not have to see what color the majority wants and then, if he is in the minority, submit.
Milton Friedman, economist and expert on screwing over poor people
(Chuck Nacke/Alamy, taken from Encyclopedia Britannica)
You just have to love the conception of freedom throughout this whole chapter: overseas vacations, practicing medicine without a license, tie colors--all the big stuff is covered. To address Milton's point here, it's worth noting that markets inherently skew toward valuing the desires of the rich over the poor (who has more money, after all?), which I guess is what he means by "proportional representation." And, rest assured, I don't think any socialists want to limit the country to a single tie color, for those who were concerned about that. But let's hear a little more about freedom:
The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated...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.
How has that dispersal of economic power been working out since the Friedman-backed deregulation under Reagan, again? It kinda seems like we've been moving more toward the economy being run by a smaller and smaller number of people. But that's okay as long as those people aren't in the government, I guess, because "if economic power is joined to political power, concentration [of power] seems almost inevitable." Some would say that concentrating power in the hands of the people (rather than, say, in the hands of a wealthy elite) is a good thing, but I guess we wouldn't want to "count noses."
[I]f economic power is kept in separate hands from political power, it can serve as a check and a counter to political power.
The force of this abstract argument can perhaps best be demonstrated by example. Let us consider first, a hypothetical example that may help to bring out the principles involved, and then some actual examples from recent experience that illustrate the way in which the market works to preserve political freedom.

One feature of a free society is surely the freedom of individuals to advocate and propagandize openly for a radical change in the structure of the society--so long as the advocacy is restricted to persuasion and does not include force or other forms of coercion. It is a mark of the political freedom of a capitalist society that men can openly advocate and work for socialism. Equally, political freedom in a socialist society would require that men be free to advocate the introduction of capitalism. How could the freedom to advocate capitalism be preserved and protected in a socialist society?
In order for men to advocate anything, they must in the first place be able to earn a living
Yeah--good thing no one has to worry about earning a living under capitalism, as we all know from experience. "It would take an act of self-denial," Friedman continues, "whose difficulty is underlined by experience in the United States after World War II with the problem of 'security' among Federal employees, for a socialist government to permit its employees to advocate policies directly contrary to official doctrine." Yeah, it would really suck if you could get fired for activism--like for instance for supporting unionization in your workplace, which gets people (illegally) fired all the time. Worth noting also that the rate of illegal firings of pro-union employees during union election campaigns shot up dramatically under--guess who!--Ronald Reagan. Also, Milton either doesn't understand or is being deliberately dishonest about the fact that in a genuine socialist society, the "official doctrine" would be decided democratically and put up for debate; as opposed to, say, being decided by corporate elites who then intimidate employees into voting the right way by threatening to fire people if the wrong candidate wins.

Believe it or not, things are about to get stupider:
But let us suppose this act of self-denial to be achieved. For advocacy of capitalism to mean anything, the proponents must be able to finance their cause--to hold public meetings, publish pamphlets, buy radio time, issue newspapers and magazines, and so on. How could they raise the funds ? There might and probably would be men in the socialist society with large incomes, perhaps even large capital sums in the form of government bonds and the like, but these would of necessity be high public officials.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Milton Friedman really doesn't understand how socialism works. Yes, in communist dictatorships the leaders have enjoyed a great deal of material wealth not afforded to the average person, but again that's because these countries aren't actually democratic but rather run by dictators and party bureaucracies. In an actually democratic system, why would "high government officials" be richer than the average person? That is literally the opposite of what Marx advocated.

Continuing on this blindingly stupid train of thought, Friedman writes: "The only recourse for funds would be to raise small amounts from a large number of minor officials. But this is no real answer. To tap these sources, many people would already have to be persuaded, and our whole problem is how to initiate and finance a campaign to do so." I guess we shouldn't be surprised, but apparently Milton Friedman not only doesn't understand socialism, he also doesn't understand how mass movements work at all. For one thing, they usually don't start with any idea held by one person or some tiny group of people that they have to spend money to persuade other people to support. For a movement to get off the ground, there generally has to be a lot of people who are already sympathetic to the cause or can be easily persuaded by word of mouth.

For instance, no one had to spend a bunch of money to convince people to support the Civil Rights movement. Given that African-Americans were systematically oppressed and mistreated throughout the country, no one had to put up billboards or print magazines to convince many of them (and those sympathetic to their plight) to support civil rights legislation and desegregation. These were views a lot of people already held, the question was just how to organize them into an effective movement--which, yes, may require some amount of money, but if you have a lot of people who are already sympathetic to your ideas, you can usually find ways to raise funds and get the message out, which helps you raise more funds and get the message out further, etc. But Milton has quite a different explanation for how political movements work:
Radical movements in capitalist societies...have typically been supported by a few wealthy individuals who have become persuaded--by a Frederick Vanderbilt Field, or an Anita McCormick Blaine, or a Corliss Lamont, to mention a few names recently prominent, or by a Friedrich Engels, to go farther back.
Wow, now there is an alternative history for you! The labor movement didn't succeed because of the organization and efforts of the masses, it succeeded because it was bankrolled by Friedrich Engels a la George Soros supposedly funding left-wing protests (as every far-right lunatic, including the president, believes he does). Milton Friedman literally thinks that radical movements succeed because they're astroturfed by rich people. There are no words for this. But wait--there's more!
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. And, indeed, it is not even necessary to persuade people or financial institutions with available funds of the soundness of the ideas to be propagated. It is only necessary to persuade them that the propagation can he financially successful[.]
Wow, what a great thing! Isn't it wonderful that in a capitalist society you just have to convince some idiot with enough money to fund even the stupidest venture as long as you're sly enough to make them believe it'll make them more money? Wouldn't it be awful if the world's finite resources were under democratic control and we stupidly devoted more money toward, say, feeding the poor and curing diseases, rather than making reality shows about mentally unstable businessmen who then get elected president? Perish the thought!

"Let us stretch our imagination and suppose that a socialist government is aware of this problem and is composed of people anxious to preserve freedom," Milton the socialism expert proposes, continuing:
Could it provide the funds? Perhaps, but it is difficult to see how. It could establish a bureau for subsidizing subversive propaganda. But how could it choose whom to support? If it gave to all who asked, it would shortly find itself out of funds, for socialism cannot repeal the elementary economic law that a sufficiently high price will call forth a large supply.
A big part of the idea behind socialism is that everyone will have the resources to devote some of their time to leisure (or activism, if they so choose). Which democratic socialist is it that's proposing we don't give anyone more than they need to survive unless a government committee approves their request? Does Friedman also think that in a socialist society you have to ask the government for the money to go see a movie or buy a book or do anything other than survive? I know right-wing dolts like to say that socialism is all about turning the government into everybody's daddy or whatever, but I didn't think they believed it this literally.

"But we are not yet through," Friedman informs us (I had a bad feeling we weren't).
In a free market society, it is enough to have the funds. The suppliers of paper are as willing to sell it to the Daily Worker as to the Wall Street Journal. In a socialist society, it would not be enough to have the funds. The hypothetical supporter of capitalism would have to persuade a government factory making paper to sell to him, the government printing press to print his pamphlets, a government post office to distribute them among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk, and so on.
So in Milton Friedman's imagined socialist society, when you go to Socialist Staples to buy a ream of paper do the clerks have to interrogate you about what you're going to print on it? And again, we have to substitute the word "government" with "worker-owned" every time it crops up in this paragraph, since socialism is about worker control of the means of production, not control by some government bureaucracy. The answer to this whole conundrum is really pretty simple: since in socialism the economy is managed democratically, a socialist society could just pass a law saying that everyone can have equal access to its resources regardless of political views, religion, race, etc. Nondiscrimination laws are already pretty common (even though Milton Friedman opposed them, it's worth noting) so there's no reason to think the same sort of thing couldn't be adopted in a socialist society.

The never-ending chapter continues:
A striking practical example of these abstract principles is the experience of Winston Churchill. From 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Churchill was not permitted to talk over the British radio, which was, of course, a government monopoly administered by the British Broadcasting Corporation.  Here was a leading citizen of his country, a Member of Parliament, a former cabinet minister, a man who was desperately trying by every device possible to persuade his countrymen to take steps to ward off the menace of Hitler's Germany. He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his position was too "controversial".
Oh man, that would be rough to live in a society where people with controversial political views are marginalized by the media. So, in our capitalist society where the media is privately owned, let me ask this: how often do you see, say Noam Chomsky--one of the most prominent leftists in the world and a renowned academic--on CNN or MSNBC or any other major outlet like that? How many socialist opinion writers are there at the New York Times? It kinda feels like maybe capitalist media institutions also like to marginalize "controversial" opinions. Speaking of media monopolies, it's maybe worth noting that the ownership of media in the US has become increasingly concentrated over the last 20 years thanks to--you guessed it!--deregulation.

Friedman contrasts Churchill's treatment with the Hollywood blacklist, since Dalton Trumbo was still able to get employment by using a pseudonym and being a good writer; once it was discovered that Trumbo had written the Oscar-winning story for the film The Brave One, Friedman says, the blacklist fell apart since it wasn't profitable to blacklist talented people because of their political views. From this he concludes,
If Hollywood and the movie industry had been government enterprises or if in England it had been a question of employment by the British Broadcasting Corporation it is difficult to believe that the "Hollywood Ten" or their equivalent would have found employment. Equally, it is difficult to believe that under those circumstances, strong proponents of individualism and private enterprise--or indeed strong proponents of any view other than the status quo--would be able to get employment.
Yeah, it is hard to imagine a government-funded media entity--say, PBS--broadcasting, for instance, a show hosted by Milton Friedman, where he advocates for free market positions. It's highly unlikely that an entity funded by the government would give a platform to someone whose whole ideology is based on shrinking the government and cutting "unnecessary" government programs. Just kidding! Friedman got a ten-part series in 1980, broadcast by none other than, yes, PBS, where he "focuses on basic principles" such as "How do markets work? Why has socialism failed? Can government help economic development?" and discusses how the United States' success has been "threatened by the tendency in the last few decades to assume that government intervention is the answer to all problems" (according to a website that bears the same name as the program). This speaks for itself.

As we mercifully approach the end of this first chapter (and I swear to you that this really has just been one chapter of the entire book), we get a few more doozies, like this one:
[A]n 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.
That's right, capitalism cures racism now! Forget everything you've heard about that persistent racial wealth gap or the many verifiable instances of employment discrimination based on race, sexuality, gender identity, etc. (and also forget the fact that Friedman opposed any laws against such discrimination); forget that whole thing about black people not being allowed to sit at lunch counters up until the 1960s; forget everything you thought you knew, because it turns out that the free market is the answer to all of it. This book is melting my brain. And to wrap this chapter up, Milton leaves us with this tidbit:
Yet, paradoxically enough, the enemies of the free market--the Socialists and Communists--have been recruited in  disproportionate measure from these groups [African-Americas, Jews and immigrants].  Instead of recognizing that the existence of the market has protected them from the attitudes of their fellow countrymen, they mistakenly attribute the residual discrimination to the market. 
If the market really protected these groups from discrimination, then let's just say I would really, really hate to imagine what they would have gone through with no protection at all. Now please excuse me as I go treat the third-degree burns I have from this scorching hot take.

Now that we've made it to the end of that one chapter, allow me to remind you that this wasn't written by Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or some other such loudmouth imbecile, but by one of the great gurus and intellectuals behind deregulation and Reaganomics. To this day, a lot of people who support these policies view him as one of the best and smartest spokespeople their ideology has. And the sad thing is, they're probably right about that.

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