Monday, September 3, 2012

Free to choose! - Milton Friedman

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement is a ten-part television series broadcast on US public television  in 1980. In it, Milton Friedman states, emphatically and often provocatively, that the free market works best for all members of a society. Each part begins with a 25-minute film followed by another 25 minutes of discussions with honorable members who both agree and disagree with Friedman.

It wouldn't be Milton Friedman if he didn't go to extremes in his argumentation. I do not belong to those who are passionate followers of his proposals. Most of all, I think his proposals are primarily academic because they would not have a chance of being tested/implemented in today's pluralist democracies.

However, I think it is very good if, from time to time, one gets a reminder, sort of like a periodic injection - a reminder that the principle of personal freedom is at the root of our Western societes. We may not be aware of it today but if it weren't so, we wouldn't look back at a couple of thousand years of evidence of what human beings have done to increase their freedom.

In the battle between individualism and collectivism, I would offer the following observation: There is no idealistic or material value anywhere in the world whose origins are not either in the brains or hands of individual human beings (for the football fans I add "also in the feet of human beings")! The individual is the atom of everything but, at the same time, no individual can get far on his own if there is not a society where individuals demonstrate solidarity. Limit the individual and you limit the quality of society.

Why do I present this in this blog? I do so because what we are seeing in today's Eurozone are exclusively actions by governments and other official bodies. Whether it is Greece or Germany, Spain or Austria - it is governments who think that they can steer economies through plans instead of through incentives.

It is unimaginable to me that Greece would be in the dire straits which it is in today if there hadn't been absolutely mad government decisions (and behavior!) over the last 3 decades. Today, it seems that many Greeks have become helpless as a result of that. Greeks who probably would have done quite will if not hindered by others now pay dearly for not having been allowed to do quite well.

Those who still think that all answers can and will come from the Greek government are urgently recommended to watch the below videos. One doesn't have to go through all of them. It suffices to watch the first and the last one.

Nr. 1: The power of the market
Nr. 2: The tyranny of control
Nr. 3: Anatomy of a crisis
Nr. 4: From cradle to grave
Nr. 5: Created equal
Nr. 6: What's wrong with our schools?
Nr. 7: Who protects the consumer?
Nr. 8: Who protects the worker?
Nr. 9: How to cure inflation?
Nr. 10: How to stay free


  1. Klaus writes - "... if there hadn't been absolutely mad government decisions (and behavior!) over the last 3 decades ... [then] it seems that many Greeks [wouldn't] have become helpless ..."

    If you are right then the Greeks would appear to be a trance. Perhaps they need lessons from a different Milton to snap them out of it. I mean Milton Erikson of course, I always get the two names confused, but not the people. They were near contemporaries - Erikson died in 1980.

    I wonder if the concept of 'society' as its now understood is part of the problem. Cameron's 'Big Society" comes to mind, I've no idea what he means, nor I suspect does he - but I find it a really scary notion - a) because its Big and b) it includes the nebulous all encompassing, all inclusive idea of a 'society' - is there such a thing, can there be such a thing, should there be such a thing.

    You write "no individual can get far on his own if there is not a society where individuals demonstrate solidarity."

    If I substitute "community" for society and "fellowship" for solidarity, I get "no individual can get far on his own if there is not a community where individuals demonstrate fellowship." - I can easily live with that, it feels more human.

    Perhaps 'solidarity' meant something in Gdansk, but once the Euro Elites took it on board, it joined the ranks of subsidiarity etc - creepy crawly words that a spider might use.

    I was visiting the US during the time of the Kosovo crisis, you may recall refugees being given a 'safe haven' in various countries including the US. I was visiting friends when about 150+ Kosovar's showed up, literally dumped on the doorstep. What I saw in the next couple of weeks was remarkable, the US at its very, very, best. Within days families had somewhere to live, people had work, kids were in schools, health care was arranged. One man had lost his prosthetic leg, within a week he had a new one. And hardly a civil servant in sight, all done by the community. The local churches played a big role & the local Red Cross - pre 9/11 of course - would it happen today, I like to think it could.


    1. I find your definition of fellowship excellent!

      What you describe about "the US at its best" is something which I would subscribe to totally. I have witnessed such "American" behavior time and again, albeit never on such a large dimension. Several years ago I saw a study showing the number of hours regular employees spent on volunatry social work. There was the US as the No. 1 and then there was nothing for a long time until the next country showed up.

      Regrettably, emotional anti-Americanism blinds a lot of European eyes. Whenever I mention in debates something for which Americans ought to be praised, that action is immediately discredited with the saying "yeah, but they only did it for money".

      There is no doubt in my mind that, even today, similar things would happen like the ones you witnessed with the Kosovar's.

  2. greek mad government decisions for decades may be correct. but the general public of greece allowed them to do this for decades. every 4 years they told them to continue...

    1. In one of the tapes, Friedman makes a nice differentiation between voting with your vote and voting with your dollar.

      "I can buy a blue tie with my dollar and you can buy a red tie with your dollar. With my vote I can only buy a package. If 60% are for red ties and 40% for the blue ties, I still end up with red ties".

      When two parties carry a combined vote of about 80% for a long period of time, the voter has become powerless (Austria was in that situation for much of the post WWII period). He knows he is going to get one or the other, but not a third party. Only if and when the frustration of voters gets extremely high, a third player may come along and if he is politically talented, he can provoke change. Austria had its Jörg Haider from the right, Greece has its Alexis Tsipras from the left.

      Many voters get so excited about the Jörg Haider's, the Alexis Tsipras' etc. because those populists give them the feeling that, for the first time, their vote may count.

      In short: I think holding Austrians and Greeks responsible for having continually reelected the same oligarchy is expecting a bit too much from voters. What failed in Greece, in my opinion, was true opposition within the elites of the country. In the US it would be the media as the Fourth Power who would be one of the more important checks. Perhaps also the academia. Perhaps the political opposition in parliament. To me as an outsider it seems that in Greece all elites more or less were in the same boat and enjoyed the fruits of the journey.

  3. good point klaus. but if you do not want to vote for any politial party there is always another option. make an invalid vote. an invalid one (blank ballot) is better than no vote.
    its true that only valid votes are counted and used to partition the parliament.

    imagine a hyptotetical vote with 95% voter participation in austria 1990

    20% reds, 20% blacks, 10% other (the "Haiders"), 50% invalid!

    well that would result in 40% red,40% black, 20% others. so 80% for red+black. but what a blow in reputation! that would be shocking!

    1. except what if it were 5% reds, 5% blacks, 10% Haiders and 80% invalid? Then Haider would be the government!
      So no, the only solution is the hard one: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself(or with others who will agree to do this)!