Milton Friedman and the Free Society

Milton Friedman

Found in New Individualist Review

In 1845, the Great Famine began in Ireland. It lasted until 1852. As a consequence of that natural disaster, it is estimated that about one million Irish died and another million immigrated during those years. The British government, which was the sovereign of Ireland at that time, did too little, too late to prevent that human tragedy. Its inaction was influenced, allegedly, by a Malthusian worldview. The following generations would sap support for laissez-faire policies and the individualist conceptions of human flourishing justifying them. As noted by Milton Friedman quoting AV Dicey**:

As you may recall, Dicey dates the change in public opinion in Britain away from individualism and toward collectivism at about 1870-90. Dicey answers his question by essentially reversing it, saying that in its original form, it may be a foolish question. Perhaps the relevant question is not why people turned away from individualism toward collectivism, but how they were induced to accept the queer notion of individualism in the first place. The argument for a free society, he goes on to say, is a very subtle and sophisticated argument. At every point, it depends on the indirect rather than the direct effect of the policy followed. If one is concerned to remedy clear evils in a society, as everyone is, the natural reaction is to say, “let’s do something about it,” and the “us” in this statement will in a large number of cases be translated into the “government,” so the natural reaction is to pass a law. The argument that maybe the attempt to correct this particular evil by extending the hand of the government will have indirect effects whose aggregate consequences may be far worse than any direct benefits that flow from the action taken is, after all, a rather sophisticated argument. And yet, this is the kind of argument that underlies a belief in a free or laisser-faire society. (FROM: Is a Free Society Stable?) - Milton Friedman

In 1849, Thomas Carlyle coined the derogatory expression “The Dismal Science” for economics, which he criticized for “reducing the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.” Such an understanding of economics as a science of policy prescriptions has contributed much to the rise of collectivist, anti-liberal political views in Western societies since then. The fact that Carlyle coined that expression in an article called “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he defended the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies in order to compel “idle black men” to work, is not so common knowledge though.

The indifference toward human suffering in a natural calamity shown towards their Irish subjects by the UK government, rather than an indictment against colonialism, against non-representative government, against scientific mistakes such as Malthusianism, instead became an effective propaganda tool against individualism and the ideal of a free society. Not everything that happened during the “liberal century” (1815-1914) was due to the liberal doctrine, however imperfectly put in practice as it was even at its peak. Nevertheless, it seems that reaching an interpretation of history, with all its complexity, much more complex than political slogans, requires more time and effort than most are willing to dedicate.