Freedom and Flourishing: Winton Bates' "What Did Milton Friedman Have to Say About Human Flourishing?"

Read this article, which also shows the relation between Milton Friedman's economic theories and broader ethical matters.

Milton Friedman's references to happiness seem to be mainly in the context of the recognition that people have the right to pursue happiness as they see fit. He argued that the freedom of the individual should be seen as the ultimate goal when judging social arrangements, and that a free society releases the energies and abilities of people to pursue their own objectives.

It is reasonably clear that Friedman believed that most people would be successful pursuing their own objectives, but he does not seem to have made specific claims to that effect. I expect he would probably have endorsed Friedrich Hayek's sentiment that "it may even be that liberty exercises its beneficial effects as much through the discipline it imposes on us as through the more visible opportunities it offers." (Constitution of Liberty, 1960:18)

Friedman was careful not to claim freedom as "an all-embracing ethic."

"Indeed, a major aim of the liberal is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with. The “really” important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a free society – what he should do with his freedom." (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962: 12).

For the benefit of readers who have come to view the liberal label as signifying support for ever-greater government regulation, I should point out that Friedman used the word liberalism "in its original sense – as the doctrines pertaining to a free man."

Friedman was also mindful of the need to acknowledge a limited case for government action on paternalistic grounds.

He wrote:

"Freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals. We do not believe in freedom for madmen or children."

He pondered the point deeply:

"The paternalistic ground for government activity is in many ways the most troublesome to a liberal; for it involves the acceptance of a principle – that some shall decide for others – which he finds objectionable in most applications and which he rightly regards as a hallmark of his chief intellectual opponents, the proponents of collectivism in one or another of its guises, whether it be communism, socialism, or a welfare state. Yet there is no use pretending that problems are simpler than in fact they are. There is no avoiding the need for some measure of paternalism." (Capitalism and Freedom, p 33-4)

However, Friedman would have been alarmed by the modern tendency for all citizens to be treated like children - with the potential for a war on obesity (beginning perhaps with an assault on marketing of soft drinks) to be added to the war on drugs.

He argued:

"Insofar as the government has information not generally available about the merits or demerits of the items we ingest or the activities we engage in, let it give us the information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives." (Free to Choose, p 227)

Friedman was particularly concerned about the adverse social effects of paternalistic welfare programs:

"Their major evil is their effect on the fabric of society. They weaken the family; reduce the incentive to work, save and innovate; reduce the accumulation of capital; and limit our freedom." (Free to Choose, p 127)

It seems to me that one of the most important contributions that Friedman made was his support for efforts to measure economic freedom. In a discussion published in the preface to the 2002 "Economic Freedom of the World Report," Friedman stressed the importance of measurement of economic freedom to development of a better understanding of the concept:

"There's a phrase written on the entrance to one of the social sciences buildings at the University of Chicago: 'When you cannot measure something, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfying.' In the process of measuring, you find that measuring is a form of definition. It isn't just that there's economic freedom out there to be measured. In the process of measuring it, we're going to define what economic freedom is. We don't really know what we have, what economic freedom is, unless we've gotten to the point of trying to measure it and see what variables it consists of, and what each of those means. Over the course of time, we have gotten a much more sophisticated understanding of what we mean when we talk about economic freedom."

In the same discussion he made a plea for economic freedom to be seen in the context of freedom more generally:

"In looking to the future, I believe one has to be careful not to over-emphasize the role of economic freedom as a source of economic growth, as compared with the role of economic freedom as a part of freedom, of human freedom."

"We've talked about economic and political freedom as if they were wholly separate things, which they are not. I think the next big task facing the economic freedom project will be to try to weld the two together and make a combined index of economic and political freedom, especially where they mesh with one another. Property rights are not only a source of economic freedom. They are also a source of political freedom. That's what really got us interested in economic freedom in the first place. Some of the elements in the Freedom House index seem to me to be inconsistent with some of the elements in our index, and it would seem to be useful to see how to reconcile those two and put them on the same philosophical basis."

One of the features of Friedman’s writings is the importance he placed on political freedoms. His argument for economic freedom was based, in part, on the view that it is "an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom." He saw political freedom – the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men – as requiring the elimination of concentration of power to the greatest extent possible. He argued that competitive capitalism promotes political freedom because it disperses power – it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.

Friedman deserves the praise he has received for his academic accomplishments in economics, but he also deserves praise for his efforts to persuade his fellow citizens of his views about freedom. He knew that he had an important message to convey and he did his best to spread it as far as possible.

In the final paragraph of ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ he wrote:

"I believe we shall be able to preserve and extend freedom … . But we shall be able to do so only if we awake to the threat we face, only if we persuade our fellow men that free institutions offer a surer, if perhaps at times a slower, route to the ends they seek than the coercive power of the state."

Milton Friedman put his faith in the ability of his followers to persuade their fellow citizens, rather than in his own ability to influence governments directly.

Last modified: Monday, March 18, 2019, 11:24 AM