Sunday, September 07, 2008

Capitalism and Freedom Review

After reading Capitalism and Freedom carefully, my opinion of Milton Friedman has been revised upward. I was assigned this book for class, but I never gave it a thoughtful, careful read till now. The book that I had read carefully from Milton, Free To Choose, left me thinking he was not a great thinker. My recollections were that Free To Choose was surprisingly lacking in nuance. That is probably because it was targeted for a mass audience, but its simplicity still seems like a negative mark for Milton Friedman.

Capitalism and Freedom has very few numbers, and no models, but it is well-argued nonetheless. It is full of rhetoric, but it is the kind of rhetoric that makes sense -- the kind which characterizes government controlling the individual as a violation of human rights. Friedman argues against the central control which was prominent at the time, but is no longer taken seriously. He does not so much engage the other type of socialism -- welfare capitalism, except to perhaps endorse it in his last sections on the distribution of income and social welfare measures.

In Friedman's second chapter, he notes the appropriate functions of government (p. 34) -- functions which I completely agree with, but which neocons, and liberals, tend to forget about. These include setting and enforcing the rules of the "economic game", promoting competition, countering monopolies, overcoming neighborhood effects (also called externalities), and even supplementing charity and the family in protecting the irresponsible. He identifies a number of policies as unequivocally wrong. Generally I don't agree that these are always wrong, but it is hard to see why agriculture price supports would be necessary. Others, such as tariffs, parks, and detailed regulation of banking would seem to have a place dependent upon the situation.

Chapter 3, on money, is probably one of the most important chapters. Friedman opposes the current Federal Reserve system, believing it is too liable to human error, and instead proposes (citing his A Program for Monetary Stability) a consistent rate of growth in the money supply of 3 to 5 percent.

Chapter 4, International Financial and Trade Arrangements, is also enormously important, and unfortunately awfully complex -- more so than money. Friedman endorses the floating exchange rate which Soros finds so troubling -- and the floating rate might be the best of bad options. Unfortunately, it leads to a fair amount of uncertainty, speculation, and sudden catastrophes as currencies change. If only there was a perfect system.

In chapter 5, Friedman critiques the Keynesian use of fiscal policy to alleviate unemployment. He argues that it relies upon untenable assumptions, because the money which the government spends must be borrowed from the public, which will drive up interest rates, and thus reduce the amount of spending and investment. He admits that it is ultimately an empirical question, but says that his recent work (The Relative Stability of the Investment Multiplier and Monetary Velocity in the United States, 1896-1958) suggests that there is no rise in expenditures, as his "quantity theory" suggests.

In Chapter 6, Friedman lays out the case for vouchers in education. I won't spend much time here -- I agree that vouchers are a good thing if strict standards are maintained, but Friedman endorses questionable standards, such as allowing segregated schools. Chapter 7 is on discrimination, a complicated political subject I'd rather not get into.

Chapter 8 is on monopoly. Friedman admits that all the ways of dealing with monopoly are bad, but tentatively concludes that leaving monopolies private may be best, mainly because innovation happens so quickly, and the government is so reluctant to let loose of its hold. I'm not sure I agree, but it is a decent point. He also makes the case here that a corporation should not be socially responsible, and that government needs to be the one holding people responsible. This sort of reminds me of how I used to play MUDs -- exploit the code, and argue that I shouldn't have to maintain reasonable behavior if it is not programmed into the game. It was probably a bad attitude, and a corporation should similarly not follow the letter of the law -- if it does, it will hopefully find itself in trouble, as I did. This argument from Friedman might be taken as an implicit argument that the government must be especially vigilant and free to take action.

He notes an interesting unintended consequence of our current system. Dividends are taxed double, which leads corporations to hold dividends and then invest them in their business, whether it is prudent or not. I fully agree with him here, and wish corporations disbursed more dividends. He wants to abolish the corporate income tax and instead force shareholders to record their profits from the company on their taxes -- meaning that they'd have to pay taxes on them, I'm guessing?

In Chapter 9, Friedman makes the case that the American Medical Association is a lobbying group bent on keeping competitors out. It's amusing. He defends "faith healers" by noting that one of thousands of quacks may produce a valuable breakthrough through their unorthodox experimentation. Those of you who know my Wikipedia efforts will know that I am sympathetic to alternative medicine, and I like this defense -- although I truly dislike things like therapeutic touch and homeopathy. Friedman argues that restricting medicine only to the highly-skilled reduces the total "physician-hours", and reduces total amount of care, thereby reducing the quality. Friedman tentatively notes that government certification may be necessary because certification information is nonexcludable -- one person can pass it on to others.

In Chapter 10, on the distribution of income, Friedman gets again into the tough ethical issues. He admits that the issue is difficult. Somehow he tries to run inequality from personal endowments together with inequality from inherited wealth, because the latter leads to personal endowments. To an extent, this is true, but he emphasizes it too much. He also makes a somewhat bizarre argument that if there were 4 Robinson Crusoes marooned on four islands, and one landed on a fruitful island, that Crusoe would not be required to share his wealth, and the 3 others, who were barely scratching by, would not be morally justified in taking it. He says this is analagous to someone finding $20 on the street, and then 3 people deciding to mug you for not sharing it. Does his analogy make sense? I dunno. I don't get ethical issues, generally, but I think 1) we should encourage a meritocracy, 2) we cannot allow people to starve or live with debilitating illness. Which brings up to the next chapter.

In Chapter 11, Friedman discusses Social Security and other social welfare provisions. He criticizes the idea behind social security -- that people cannot save for themselves -- however, I tend to think that people cannot. He notes this possibility as well, but thinks there are better ways of ensuring that people secure their retirements, so that the government is not left supporting them in their old age. He argues that most people would save for their unemployment, and that social security arose only because many people were unprepared for the Great Depression.

In Chapter 12, Friedman endorses a negative income tax, noting that such a system would target poverty much more specifically than minimum wage laws.

In 13, he sums up his arguments. Nothing too interesting here, and I'm losing steam.


Rob H said...

idk if you get a lot of readers cause i just stumbled upon this post looking for some opinions on capitalism and freedom but after seeing no comments I decided to post a word of encouragement. i like your writing and you have a lot of good stuff here! good luck blogging... you should do some SEO and get your site some traffic!

undergroundman said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I can see that you've put some time into your posts as well.

I have almost no readers, but I don't mind. I don't really have the energy to put a lot of time into this blog. If I was going to put a lot of effort in, I would come up with a more original name/title, which I plan to do at some point.

Anonymous said...

Good posts. I was honestly searching some opinion to write my paper. I am little nervous start since I didn't get to discuss with any body about this. Your posts helped me that I understood the text well enough.
Great work.

Anonymous said...

Im working on a paper on friedman where I have to come of with my own question, and then preceed to answer it analyzing it as much as possible. wondering if you could help?

undergroundman said...

Sorry, I'm busy. Best of luck.