Lessons from Milton Friedman: Free to Choose!

“Narrow preoccupation with the economic market has led to a narrow interpretation of self-interest as myopic selfishness, as exclusive concern with immediate material rewards. Economics has been berated for allegedly drawing far-reaching conclusions from a wholly unrealistic ‘economic man’ who is little more than a calculating machine, responding only to monetary stimuli. That is a great mistake. Self-interest is not myopic selfishness. It is whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue. The scientist seeking to advance the frontiers of his discipline, the missionary seeking to convert infidels to the true faith, the philanthropist seeking to bring comfort to the needy – all are pursuing their interests, as they see them, as they judge them by their own values.”

—-Milton Friedman, ‘Free to Choose’

The implications of this statement are profound, spotlighting exactly what it is that is wrong with socialism and with most forms of government regulation. We regulate, for the most part, not to protect the environment, but because we do not want our fellow human beings to be free to pursue their own interests, as they see them, and as they judge them by their own values.

Each of us of course wants to be free ourselves, but many want to restrict everyone else. Many of us us want the rest of civilization in chains. Those who want to enslave us say they want to empower us, but really they disagree with our interests, and with our values, and they only want to ’empower’ us to the degree that we do what THEY want. ‘Empowerment’ in a direction chosen by others is not ’empowerment’ at all. You are only truly empowered when you are free to choose.  That those who wish to control others do so under the claim of being ‘moral’ is a moral outrage.  Hundreds of millions of people died in the past century under the pretext of socialism, and those people would tell us how immoral such a system is, if only they were not dead.

The left likes to compare Trump’s wall with the Berlin Wall, but there is an inherent difference between a society that has to build walls to keep people out, and a society that has to build walls to keep people in.  The fact that illegal immigration drops as we move further away from being a truly free society should tell us something – those who vote with their feet only want to be here when we are free to choose.

If government gives you food, you are not empowered, but are merely fed.  More to the point, you are fed with what someone else thinks you should eat.  If government gives you housing, you are not empowered, but are merely housed.  More to the point, you are housed where someone else thinks you should live, and with only the amount of housing someone else thinks you should have.  If government gives you health care, you are not empowered, but are merely given access to the healthcare someone else thinks you should have, while also being denied the healthcare someone else thinks you should not have.

My wife’s father died of cancer, in Poland a few years ago.  Had he been one year older, his cancer would not have been treated.  As it was, his cancer was only treated the way the Polish government felt it should be treated.  He had no say in how his cancer was treated, nor in whether or not his cancer would be treated at all.  My wife’s father was neither cured, nor empowered.  Would my wife’s father still be alive had he had access to the kind of healthcare we have in the United States?  There is, of course, no way to know the answer to that question.  What is clear is that he had no control over his own healthcare outcomes, and was not allowed to choose.

My wife grew up in communist Poland.  I have been to Poland a number of times, and am going back this summer.  Poland is a wonderful country, full of wonderful people.  I absolutely adore Poland.  The first time I went was fascinating, as you could see the vestiges of communism, like a scorched Earth, across the land.  I told my wife that there were two Polands – the part still dominated by government, and the free market part that was growing like wildfire on the ruins of Poland’s communist past.  Every time I have been back, the scorched earth Poland was smaller, and the vibrant free market Poland was larger.  Nothing scares those Polish people who grew up under communism more than the threat of moving back in that direction.  The Polish people want to be free to choose.

A free market is what emerges when people are free to pursue their own interests. You cannot say that you are against free markets, but for freedom, as freedom cannot exist without free markets. Those who dislike free markets dislike them because they dislike the interests and values of their fellow human beings, and thus want their fellow human beings controlled.  When New York banned carbonated beverages that are larger than sixteen ounces, it did not do so on the basis of people not wanting carbonated beverages that are larger than sixteen ounces, but because people did want larger carbonated beverages.  New York decided to control what people in New York drink.

When Barrack Obama tells a businessman, ‘You did not build that,’ what he really means is, ‘I disagree with your interests and values and am thus taking over your business so I can use it to forward interests and values you disagree with.’ When Hillary Clinton says, ‘Never let anyone tell you that businesses create jobs,’ what she really means is, ‘I do not like the jobs businesses create and will force them to create jobs that forward my interests and values rather than the interests and values of the rest of society.’ When Bernie Sanders says that only sky-high taxes can build a free society, what he really means is that he disagrees with your interests and values, so he is going to take your money away from you to use your money to pursue HIS interests and HIS values instead.  Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and others on the left, are not trying to help society, but to control it.  Their offer of ‘free stuff’ comes not just with strings attached, but with chains.

Unfortunately, when Bernie of Hillary say the word ‘free’, most of society looks only at the carrot. It would be wise to look also at the stick.

Nothing is free.  Someone pays for everything.  The real question is whether it makes more sense for the person who gets an education, and who is the primary beneficiary of that education, to pay for it, or for everyone else to pay for it, whether they benefit or not.  Those who go to college may not be rich when they graduate, but they are almost guaranteed to eventually make it into the top 20% of income earning society.  Does it really make sense to tax those who are poor, to fund the educations of those who are, or will be, rich?  Our society spends 20% of its GDP on healthcare.  Those expenses don’t go away just because we add a giant government bureaucracy on top of them, using tax dollars to pay the costs rather than paying them directly.  When government mandates that your insurance provider pay for routine physical exams, your insurance company jacks up your rates to collect the costs of those exams, and on top of that tacks on overhead costs and profit – you are literally paying them to pay your bills for you.  The only thing you can ever have that is truly ‘free’ is freedom – everything else comes at a cost, and often the costs incurred by government programs are greater than the costs that would be incurred in a private system.

Look at any industry with costs that are climbing faster than the rate of inflation.  Whether you choose healthcare, college educations, or something else that is outpacing inflation, I can guarantee you one thing – there are government programs in place to make those things ‘more affordable’.  There are no government programs in place to make computers, dish washers, or lawn cutting services more affordable, and yet these things get less expensive over time.  Government programs consistently offer lower quality at higher cost, and you will pay the higher cost of government programs at gunpoint, whether you like it or not.

Milton Friedman was correct.  We should all be free to choose.


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