Review – Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom”

Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) – What’s worse- the pedant or the spin doctor? The bitter pill or the shitty candy coating? That’s what I found myself thinking reading this, probably the last libertarian book I’ll read for “general education” (as opposed to “get a load of this fucking freak”) purposes for some time, and comparing it to others I’ve read recently. Von Mises and von Hayek (I like to add the “vons” – let’s make sure everyone knows their class status), especially the former, wrote dense, stormy tracts. Von Mises especially insisted that all forms of knowledge other than that based on his “praxology” were suspect. They were going to tear down knowledge and build it back up from scratch on the basis of first principles. People say stuff like “you have to admire their ambition,” and you don’t, really, but it’s clear why people say stuff like that.

Milton Friedman had more or less the same social goals as von Mises or von Hayek- win the class war for the bourgeoisie, first by beating back the Keynesian alliance between (collaborationist) labor/left leadership and government institutions, then by making sure bourgeois interests would stay on top of what was left after that. But Friedman went about it in a different way. He didn’t assail the knowledge-order around him so much as try to correct it in his direction. He mastered a peculiarly American rhetorical mode where disaster — in his case, Soviet-style totalitarianism, economic collapse, or nuclear war — is always around the corner but the sun still shines through the discourse of the speaker (the master of this, of course, was Ronald Reagan). There’s no “praxology” here, just good old American common sense! Or, rather, what most American nonfiction book buyers want- nonsense dressed up as common sense, with just enough truth to sugar the pill and the little thrill of the counterintuitive. There’s a reason “Freakonomics” came out of the same profession as “Capitalism and Freedom.”

Thinking about the rhetoric of this book is a lot more interesting than thinking about the content. Business is freedom, government isn’t, blah blah. I try to make a good faith effort to project myself to the early sixties. The left as we know it — opposed to capitalism, and the government that serves it even if it also demands concessions from said government — is basically dead, even deader than it is now. People believe in a sort of militarized, big government Keynesianism in a way that’s hard to conceptualize today. The economic tide was rising and… no, still don’t really get it. I still can’t get how you could look at capitalist practices, except if you’re on top of or deeply sheltered from them, and say, “yeah, this is freedom. If I don’t like my job I can just quit! And not have any money until I find some other bullshit employer I also hate!!” “Hey, I can choose fifty bajillion types of toothpaste, and of the sodas that necessitates it’s urgent use! Get out of the way of my joyful choices, bureaucrats!” I guess, for a higher percentage of readers, the other half of the story — “but I can’t afford decent healthcare or housing” — wasn’t there, but like… it was also wasn’t for a lot of people outside of either the middle class or the really privileged sectors of the working class we’ve let stand in for “The Working Class” in that period (and, for all too many, our own).

And that kind of gets down to the nub, doesn’t it? Friedman was relatively sunny about it. People opposed to the free market solutions are just confused, that’s all. If they could just see their best interests clearly they’d be “classical liberals” like him, and that’s why he’s writing this book. That in and of itself is a measure of difference between him and von Mises and the von Hayek of “The Constitution of Liberty” (the old Austrian word-monger went more pop in “The Road to Serfdom”). The real old school Austrians aimed at the elite notionally smart enough to understand them. Anyone confused, especially if they weren’t devoted to their idea of greatness, wasn’t worth their time. Their real heirs would be people like Murray Rothbard and the Internet anarcho-capitalist those who came after them, squalidly looking for a vanguard of freedom to take them past the goal post and ending with “the red pill.” Friedman watered down the product by offering it to a broad educated public, but it got better results. It played better with American suckers.

But Friedman gets caught in the same place they all do, and why so many libertarians, once the bills started coming due circa 2008 or so, downed that red pill and became open, committed racists and fascists (the better ones fled into our increasingly weak-tea liberalism). A lot of people are distinctly unenthusiastic for “freedom” as they conceive of it, and many of them are people of color or otherwise marginalized. Friedman swears up and down that the free market is actually better for black people and everyone else than they sort of infringements on said markets they call for through movements like the civil rights movement then reaching a crescendo in the South. Segregation is irrational because it cuts off customers from segregated businesses, he insists. Strike down segregation laws but don’t “force” integration and let the market deal with it! Soon enough everyone can sit at the lunch counter.

But that doesn’t work. First, because you’d still have armed agents of the state hauling people out of public establishments because they’re the wrong race and that’s fucked up and wrong no matter how you look at it. Second, because it does what all free market thought does and ignores history except as a series of just-so stories (did you know that oppressed minorities like Quakers and Jews did better from markets than they did from nasty old politics?!). You can say all ideologies read history selectively and you’d be right, but libertarianism more than any other ignores power differentials — pretty much every single power differential other than who happens to hold public office and what they can do that non-officeholders can’t — and how they shape history, and the present. There’s a history in the South whereby the whites hoarded not just political office but also money and power. The struggle against de jure segregation in public accommodations was an attack on an instantiation of this system, one that struck at the dignity of black people and that everybody — everybody except utter ding dongs like Friedman, that is — could see was wrong. That was not the core of the system, and most civil rights campaigners knew it, and knew they had many more battles ahead of them.

That Friedman couldn’t countenance even that first battle… well, people talk about how nice and positive and non-bigoted in person he was. I can even believe it. But fast forward a few decades and you basically have to believe in some deficiencies of race in order to hold on to a belief in the free market. This is less in the face of long-standing wealth and income differentials based on race, though that’s part of it, and more on a simpler basis. Most people of color still don’t want what libertarians are selling, and neither do most working or poor people. Most people might like the stuff about decriminalizing certain behaviors or not getting in wars, but they still see politics, broadly speaking as a struggle over power, as necessary and even vital. And so, naturally, there has to be something wrong with most people. We wind up back with the more open elitism of von Mises. And there’s something more wrong with any given group the more it rejects the basis premises of the “free market,” therefore, there’s something very wrong indeed with most marginalized peoples. Most of the dysfunctions of libertarianism as a movement that we’ve seen since the Obama election, I think, stem from this dynamic.

Friedman says little of this, though the “market-based solution” to segregation would be enough to get him “cancelled” in most circles today. He, probably genuinely enough, saw it as a solution less to segregation and more to his real bete noir, disorder, or rather, two birds that could be killed with one stone. That runs like a thread through “Capitalism and Freedom,” and through most of libertarianism- fear of disorder, fear of disruption. I am well aware they like to present themselves as freewheeling, thriving on chaos, using “disrupt” as the most sacred verb in the dictionary. But try delaying their sushi delivery an hour and then tell them someone “disrupted” DoorDash with an brief work stoppage, and see how much they like disruption then. White people were really, really scared of the sit-ins and marches, as scared as they were of riots. In many respects, Friedman was assuring the “white moderate” King wrote derisively of to relax- once we get rid of those pesky laws (both segregation and labor) everything will work out. And Friedman would be dead by the time the jig was well and truly up and the libertarians dropped the mask. Lucky to the end, the wily little Econ-gnome. *

Review – Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom”

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