I recently went back and read a few chapters of Milton Friedman’s classic Capitalism and Freedom. To understand classical liberal thought – especially from an economic angle – this book is a must-read, perhaps only surpassed in popularity by Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
In the book, Friedman makes a daring claim: that political freedom needs economic freedom, or else will perish. Liberty as such, the highest good of a political community for Friedman, is in need of capitalism. For if you get rid of the free market economy, political tyranny will necessarily follow. It comes to no surprise, then, that in a world in which capitalism gets a bad reputation that “freedom is a rare and delicate plant,” being threatened from all sides. From there, Friedman develops his case that government scope and size needs to be heavily limited and that whatever power the state may be granted, it needs to be as widely dispersed as possible: decentralized limited government is on Friedman’s agenda, and throughout the book, he further flashes out what that means in different policy areas.
What caught my attention much more this time around, however, were some peculiar statements on Friedman’s end; statements, which shed light on some perhaps much more fundamental problems with classical liberal thinking today.
First, Friedman asserts that “it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility.” Second, and just a little further along, he writes that “freedom is tenable only for responsible individuals.”
Those are only side sentences, and so Friedman does not expound on them further. But they seem much greater and quintessential statements, from which arise many questions. Perhaps, some types of libertarians may simply ask: ‘Why? Why do people need to be responsible and practice self-denial in a free system? Why can’t they just do whatever they want?’ Much more important, however, is the question: ‘What if individuals are unwilling to practice self-denial? What if they are not responsible at all? Would this mean that freedom is untenable and (implicitly) undesirable? Should those who do not practice self-denial be denied their freedom in turn?’
The first set of questions should not be the main topic of this short article. Nonetheless, Friedman seems to assume that the market economy needs a moral foundation to function. ‘Anything goes’ is not an ethical framework, since it would make freedom unsustainable. Acting immorally would lead to degeneracy and chaos. The existence of man, now fully unethical and bestial, would be brutish and anarchy of the tyrannical sort would ensue. Freedom would be abolished, either by the breakdown of social life or by government takeover.
It nonetheless seems like a drastic omission that Friedman does not even care to wonder: what if humans are irresponsible? What if they are morally degenerate? One may argue that freedom would make them responsible again. But this is not what Friedman is saying: freedom, according to him, only works if they are already responsible.
This leads, of course, to even more questions, though we will only focus on two: First, what type of morality and responsibility is it that Friedman considers necessary for liberty? “Practicing self-denial” sounds strong but is also a somewhat vague definition – “self-denial” from what? What are licentious and irresponsible actions that would deem freedom impossible? Is he thinking more along the lines of “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” (or the more modern form, “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff”) – which seems too little for the strong words he is using – or is he thinking of thou shalt not engage in free sex and drugs (though hopefully excluding rock n roll)? Or, put differently, does he think more of the ‘morality’ of a libertarian, which minimizes if not sometimes eliminates self-denial, or of the morality of the ancients and the Christians, which Friedman however does not mention?
The second (pack of) question(s) is: how do people become moral, how do they learn to deny themselves, and how do they become responsible in the first place? How do they acquire virtues and become good people? (And, one might ask Friedman, who defends freedom on more utilitarian grounds – it simply works – but never ponders why liberty is desirable in the first place: what is the good anyway?) What are the virtues that everyone has to acquire to become a responsible citizen (or market participant) in a free regime?
Friedman, naturally, does not answer any of these questions. This is not surprising, since he rejects any objective morality that individuals needs to adhere to. “A major aim of the liberal,” he writes, “is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with.” And yet, it is wholly unclear how he squares this with the previous statements. Or with this one: “capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.”
What are these other necessary conditions, morally speaking in particular, that freedom needs? Friedman does not respond, albeit he believes that only a moral people, at least respecting others and their property, but through self-denial probably going far beyond that, is worthy of freedom. And in the same way that Friedman has not answered these puzzles, neither do most of us today.
Yet, in a world that is flat-out refusing to practice self-denial, in which classical morality is considered outdated and license has been on the ascent for decades, in which people are often irresponsible, rather living off the state, and are more sheep of the government than self-governing citizens, it seems to be the most essential topic of all. It has to be the quintessential topic to ponder about in a time when freedom is on the attack more than in decades.