Search This Blog


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Milton Friedman's Twist on Hayek

Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom has succeeded Boaz as my political bedtime reading. In my political readings thus far, I have been impressed and educated by Hayek's careful analysis of socialism, aggravated by Von Mises' sloppy analysis of liberalism, and much provoked to thought by Boaz's modern presentation of libertarian principles and their applications. Friedman, however, has been less exciting. Reading Friedman reminds me of reading Shakespeare and remarking on all the 'cliches'. Perhaps Friedman's impact on our current economic thinking has been so strong that his analysis now seems commonplace. I was, however, struck by an observation in Chapter II: The Role of Government in a Free Society. Friedman notes that government action, unlike market action, imposes conformity. The greater the scope of government action, the more areas in which people are forced to conform. Extending the range of the imposed conformity too far works to undermine social cohesion and generate conflict. This is reminiscent of Hayek's assertion that the massive legislation required to implement socialist economic policy is incompatible with democracy: the vast scope of the legislation makes it exceedingly unlikely that a majority can agree on any economic plan, leading socialist proponents to circumvent the democratic process in order to impose their program. (Of course, our current congressional leadership has obviated this obstacle by the simple expedient of convincing the Democratic majority to vote for enormous bills without actually reading them.) Friedman transfers Hayek's assertion from the House and Senate to the electorate: the greater the number and impact of government intrusions into citizens' lives, the more likely any given individual will be strongly opposed to some aspect of government action, with possible consequent disruption of society.

While I find Friedman's extension of Hayek's assertions intriguing, I have not seen much evidence of consequent social disruption. The Tea Party movement suggests that large numbers of Americans have decided that government intrusion into their lives has indeed exceeded their tolerance. Observe, however, that the response is political rather than social. I am not sure what form social disruption is supposed to take, although visions of rioting and striking French workers come to mind. Of course Europeans accept with little protest dramatically greater government control over their lives than Americans endure. Their history, however, differs from ours; in particular, they have never experienced the degree of individual liberty that Americans have long enjoyed and taken for granted. A great conservative fear at the time of the passage of Obamacare was that Americans could be lured into the same servile attitude towards the government.

When wondering how much government intervention American voters will tolerate, one is led to ask to what extent voters accept government impositions simply because they are advocated by their 'team' (i.e. political party)? In the same vein, as most of us ask as soon as we become politically aware, why are attitudes toward homosexuality, immigration, carbonophobia, class warfare, etc. linked? Presumably people choose their positions on issues based on their party affiliation at least as often as they choose their party affiliation based on their stands on issues. Perhaps the rise of the unaffiliated voter is important to consider in this context. As government reach expands, political parties must take stands on an ever wider variety of issues. Perhaps it is becoming ever harder for many Americans to affiliate with either major party; there are simply too many axes of potential disagreement. Unfortunately, opting out is a poor choice. The unaffiliated have little impact at the primary level; so, they share responsibility - through inaction - for the poor choices we often face in general elections. Once again I am led to appreciate the increased voter participation represented by the rise of the Tea Party movement. If the Tea Partiers are successful in rolling back government overreach (admittedly a long term project), then an amusing consequence could be a rise in voter identification with both parties. When the Republicans and Democrats no longer need to take stands on whether it is better to allow a hip replacement at age 70 instead of state of the art cancer drugs at age 75, it will be easier for voters to find a party with which he has no deal breaking disagreements.

No comments:

Post a Comment