Topic: Political Philosophy

Don’t Know Much about Friedman

It took a little more than a fortnight for someone to appropriate the legacy of Milton Friedman in support of something that the Nobel Laureate probably would have opposed. 

In an article for National Review Online, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his associate David Merritt call on the nation to “Renew Milton Friedman’s Conservatism.”  Whether chosen by the authors or the editors, that title betrays that someone missed Friedman’s point entirely.  In 1975, an interviewer asked Friedman whether it was fair to describe him as a “conservative economist.”  Here was Friedman’s response:

I never characterize myself as a conservative economist. As I understand the English language, conservative means conserving, keeping things as they are. I don’t want to keep things as they are. The true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today – the New Dealers – they are the true conservatives, because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on. I would like to dismantle that. I call myself a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means (inaudible) and pertaining to freedom.

Even more jarring is a policy proposal that the authors seem to associate with Friedman.  Gingrich and Merritt write:

We can transform health and health care to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower costs to every American. And government has a role to play. It can and should build an electronic infrastructure, much like government builds public school buildings.

I see two problems here.  First, Friedman often argued that it would be far preferable were government to stop providing education and instead just finance it.  That suggests he saw no need for government to build the schools.  Second, if Friedman ever took a stand on government provision of health information technologies such as electronic medical records, the lack of which is often regarded as a market failure, I’m not aware of it.  However, I have to suspect that left-leaning economist Brad DeLong more closely captured Friedman’s views on the subject when he wrote:

[Friedman] believed…that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures.

That view is hardly supportive of having the feds provide health information technologies.

Gingrich and Merritt do not completely misappropriate Friedman’s legacy.  They do argue for a few free-market health care and education proposals. 

Genetic Engineering: The Eugenics of Tomorrow?

I received a request today to comment on the possible dangers of genetic engineering. Michael Crichton’s latest book, Next, explores some of the horrors eugenics could bring, such as the mixing of animal and human DNA. Here are some of my thoughts:

Isaac Asimov, another great science fiction writer, said, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” 

It is impossible to estimate, let alone know, the balance of good or evil that scientific knowledge will bring. In everything humans do, they are daunted by the principle of unintended consequences, but the answer is not to stop looking for answers. The pursuit of knowledge is the only true path to improving the human condition, yet there are almost as many views on what knowledge should be pursued as there are pursuers. The answer is to proceed cautiously, allowing small steps and small corrections, so with time the truth will show itself.

The best way to ensure caution is to keep government out of the pursuit of knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise. In the private sector, endeavors are supported only by those who believe they are ethical and worthwhile. The more extreme and outlandish the idea, the less likely it is to receive support. When mistakes are made on a small scale, they have small scale effects. Governments, which are run by individuals no less fallible than the rest of humanity, are influenced by bad ideas as much as by good ones. But, unlike the individual mad scientist with a small group of supporters, government mistakes loom larger than life — its policies affect the lives of whole populations.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was touted as the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and Carol Campbell Brigham at first supported eugenics, as did every U.S. president between 1901 and 1933. Many people all over the world worked hard both in their private lives and through government policy to implement its principles. 

Individuals had their own ideas about improving the human gene pool by marrying only superior specimens of humanity. If the eugenics movement had resulted in nothing more than discriminatory marriage practices, the word “eugenics” wouldn’t represent anything more than a silly fad. The reason eugenics has become almost synonymous with mass sterilizations and genocide is because governments got involved.

Genetic engineering may be the answer to many of humanity’s problems or it may be the next eugenics. Let’s keep government out of science and let the advances and mistakes take place in small steps so that humanity can learn from scientific successes and failures on a realistic scale. Only with government intervention do potential mishaps become disastrous tragedies.

New Mexico: Land of Dependence

Found on a New Mexico state web site…

My father-in-law runs the Santa Fe chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a voluntary charity that measures success in terms of how many people it helps to achieve financial independence.  Odd that the state government appears to take pride in doing the opposite. 

The Free Lunch Project may have found its new home.  Crescit eundo, indeed.

Freedom is Breaking Out all Over

Being a libertarian means you’re often the entertainment at cocktail parties.  ‘Let’s have Jim tell us why there should be no traffic lights!  It’ll be a riot!’

Now comes word that seven cities and regions in Europe are doing away with traffic lights and signs - indeed with most traffic regulations.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.

“Unsafe is safe”

The result is that drivers find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They’re constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.

The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves.

I first read about the weakness of traffic regulation in Regulation magazine and was reminded of the concept by a recent post on TechDirt which seems to have stirred some passion given the 100+ comments.

I’m entirely in favor of a deregulated, human-oriented traffic system - though I am slightly concerned about it diminishing my entertainment value at cocktail parties.

My Afternoon with Milton & Rose

I had the fortune to work for the Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2003.  I got to run around on the Senate floor, act important, give senators advice, and watch them routinely reject that advice.  It was great fun. 

The highlight of my tenure as a Senate staffer was easily the the afternoon that I shuttled Milton and Rose Friedman from their hotel to the Senate and back again. 

It was May 9, 2002, the day that Milton was honored both at the White House and at the Cato Institute’s 25th anniversary gala for his lifetime of service to the cause of human freedom.  When I learned he would be in D.C., I opportunistically arranged a meeting between him and half a dozen senators so that Milton could share his ideas about health care

Some cute memories stand out.  I had to ask my two passengers to buckle up.  When we arrived at the Senate, Milton and Rose – each standing about 5’2” tall – practically got stuck when they tried to step through the metal detector at the same time.  I tried not to laugh as an enormous Capitol policeman repeatedly patted down the diminutive, apologetic, and 90-year-old Nobel laureate to find whatever deadly weapon Milton was trying to smuggle into the Capitol. 

After Milton and the senators discussed health care, Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK) brought up the farm bill that the Senate had just passed.  He and Milton had a lengthy exchange wherein Milton denounced the bill as a throwback to Soviet-style economic planning.  On our way back to the hotel, I explained that Sen. Nickles had raised the issue to needle another senator, who sat right next to Milton at the meeting, had voted for the farm bill, and who uncomfortably stared at his hands throughout the entire exchange.  Milton was unconcerned about the senator’s discomfort, asking only, “Why did he vote for that??”

That day in 2002 was the only face time I got with Milton and Rose.  (Another highlight of my career came in 2005, when Milton wrote a blurb for a book that I co-authored.) Nevertheless, ever since he passed on Thursday, I can’t help feeling that I lost a great friend.  Just another one of his gifts, I suppose.

Rest in peace.

To Milton What Belongs to Milton

When I was 18 years old in 1966, I read this paragraph in Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom:

The “social security” program is one of those things on which the tyranny of the status quo is beginning to work its magic…. [I]t has come to be so much taken for granted that its desirability is hardly questioned any longer. Yet it involves a large-scale invasion into the personal lives of a large fraction of the nation….

These words, and the brilliant Chapter 11 of that book, changed my life and the future of my long and narrow country.

Many years later, after we had fully privatized Social Security in Chile in 1980, I was honored to become an intellectual friend with this giant of liberty. We met at his beautiful San Francisco apartment, we interacted at many Cato events, and we even rode together in a very long black limousine with his wife Rose and Ed Crane from San Francisco to San Jose to a joint appearance in front of Sillicon Valley entrepreneurs. I saw him for the last time when he was honored at the White House on May 9, 2002, during an event appropriately called “A Lifetime of Achievement: Milton Friedman at 90.”

A great leader has left us. He was a man who understood the wisdom in T.S. Eliot’s words: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Because Milton dared to “risk going too far,” he advanced decisively the frontiers of liberty.

Friedman Was No Squish

We’re all deeply saddened by the passing of Milton Friedman, but remembering our fondest recollections of the man at the same time.  Obviously, his contributions to economics were his singular achievement (I even remember being puzzled at how much I enjoyed reading Money Mischief, not exactly a general-appeal book), but the man was a hardcore libertarian all around.

I recalled reading this passage in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 5, 2005:

Friedman supported Bush’s first-term candidacy, but he is more accurately libertarian than conservative and not a reliable Bush ally.

Progress in his goal of rolling back the role of government, he said, is “being greatly threatened, unfortunately, by this notion that the U.S. has a mission to promote democracy around the world,” a big Bush objective.

“War is a friend of the state,” Friedman said. It is always expensive, requiring higher taxes, and, “In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do.”

Worth remembering.  We will all miss Friedman’s contributions: not just to economics, but to libertarian thought generally.