CAPITALISM IN A FREE SOCIETY
Advances by Civilization
In his effort to discredit the very idea of centralized government, which also tends to destroy the confidence the people of this nation have in their union and the effectiveness of their collective action, Friedman makes one of the more preposterous statements in his book. He says, "The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government." (p. 3) We wonder if Mr. Friedman has heard of space exploration, nuclear energy, computers and the internet. Those are just four examples out of a countless number of great advances that would never have occurred but for the support and financing by a centralized government.
excuse me, mr. friedman, but i believe the greatest works of architecture in the world were ordained, as it were, by centralized government. what about the roman colliseums? the great pyramids? the golden gate bridge or the great wall of china? were these products of individuals? no, of course not. they may have originiated in the minds of truly creative and intelligent individuals, but the means necessary to build these great structures were available only through the central, national authority (or equivalent). should the individual receive all the credit for these things, if it was their ideas which were put into fruition? no again; certainly individuals are important, but this is just another example of how individuals develop through social relations. this is one of the reasons i liked the movie "titanic"; the ship itself was not the focus of the story. certainly it was a marvelous achievement of technology and industry, but it would all have been for naught if not for the hundreds of workers who slaved away to both build the ship and to ensure that it ran.Eyler
Surely there is nothing profound in taking for granted the fundamental and indispensable relationships that exists between the various members of the society. Ideologues invariably do that, however, when they have an ideological agenda that they are pushing. And anyone can overlook these connections in their effort to support a theory. But how can valid conclusions result from such a myopic approach?
this sounds good. i picked out an interesting quote from marx, to the effect that while individuals may exist apart from society, it is only through society that individuation may occur (i.e., through language, custom, that sort of thing).
"Man is a zoon politikon in the most literal sense, not only a social animal, but an animal that can be individuated only within society. Production by an isolated individual outside society...is just as preposterous as the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another." --from "Towards a Critique of Political Economy"
But Mr. Friedman must have in mind some sophistical manipulation of the concepts involved, because his conclusions make no sense. He states further, "Columbus did not set out to seek a new route to China in response to a majority directive of a parliament, though he was partly financed by an absolute monarch." (p. 3) Well, of course! Every advance is initiated by some interested individual or group. Even majority directives of parliament do not pop into existence on their own, but are initiated by one or more human beings acting on some project in which they have taken an interest. But ALL of such efforts on certain types of major projects would come to naught without the backing of a centralized government which is strong and powerful enough to do things that single individuals cannot do.John
etc., etc., ad nauseum. that's the way the world works.Eyler
This is the whole idea behind the existence of corporations. Columbus would never have made it out of port without the aid and support of the Spanish monarchy. And Columbus, an Italian, had to do quite a bit of shopping around before he found some executive of a centralized government that was willing and adventurous enough to invest the sums of money necessary for this venture. Notice this also: This was not the first use of ships to sail on the seas. Weren't there private individuals who owned merchant ships which they used in trade? Why didn't one of them use three of their ships to travel across the unknown waters, with the possibility of sailing over the edge of the earth? Where was private enterprise when we needed it? It was where private enterprise usually is when faced with really visionary projects involving great expense as well as great risk: it was pursuing short-term trading profits, and it was not interested in listening to some visionary kook named Columbus.
this same sort of situation develops even when there is not great expense or risk involved. it boils down, in many instances, to private profit and public costs. this is the case for nuclear energy, and many other forms of industry (where pollution regulations are not in place). industrial capitalism tends toward private gains and public costs.Eyler
Because every new advance requires initiative and leadership, shall we then belittle the organizations that provide a foundation for that leadership, that allow that leadership to be effective? Shall we destroy strong and effective government because it does not do things it was never designed to do, while overlooking its indispensable role in those things that no individual has the capacity to do? Such attacks on government have all the earmarks of a propaganda campaign designed to destroy an opponent through emotional, rather than reasonable, arguments.
every new advance requires initiative and leadership and the means to pull it off. it comes around to that old "self-made man" line. how many people are really self-made, especially so in today's world where success comes on the back of consumers and laborers? what you find with most "self-made" men is opportunism. it's not that they have some special ability or some greater work ethic than the rest of us, but that they know how to exploit an opportunity. some of course are visionaries--the first to use print advertising or television as a medium, and so forth--but most, it seems, are only involved in progressively buying out more and more competitors.Eyler
It's also that same old thing of taking certain conditions or relationships for granted. We are surrounded by the products of the labor of millions of people. Our education consists of the thoughts and ideas of millions. To take all of that for granted, and then grandly declare oneself a "self-made" man is not just arrogance; it is just plain dumb.
Says Friedman, "Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action." But what he doesn't seem to understand is, in a government of the people, one that makes a reasonable effort to do its will, we are not trying to denegrate government power, but direct it aright and make it an adjunct to the people's will. This requires not a marginalized and weakened government, but a strong government. As Jefferson says,
"The government which can wield the arm of the people must be the strongest possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Weaver, Jr., 1807. ME 11:221
Friedman's fear of government uniformity and the stagnation that uniformity produces leads him to support a kind of Individualism that neglects and opposes unity and working for the public interest, or the common good. This Individualism foolishly rejects the notion of the common good altogether. But the problem is not in the common good, but the repressive means taken to secure it. And Friedman's solution, by failing to recognize this distinction, becomes just another repressive means, imposed from above: a denial of the rights of a whole nation of people to take collective action for their own welfare.
this is an interesting development. individualism in the last half century has taken on a new meaning. look at the original individualists--i.e., the anarchists--and you get a completely different picture of individualism than what you hear from friedman, murray rothbard, ayn rand, and others. as an example, i used to meet with a humanist group on sundays, and there were a couple of avowed anarchists in the group; both suggested that because they were anarchists, they were laissez-faire capitalists. for them anarchism was equivalent to laissez-faire capitalism. had i the gumption, i could have said: "i think emma goldmann, rosa luxembourg, pierre-joseph proudhon, murray bookchin, mikhail bakunin, peter kropotkin, james guillaume, enrico malatesta, elise recluse, noam chomsky, saul d. alinsky, daniel guerin, ivan illich, rudolf rocker, and even more explicitly individualistic anarchists such as benjamin tucker and max stirner would disagree with you". for anarchists (in general, of course, as the term is applied liberally), individuals exist within society and are part of a community, and it is only through society that individuals achieve their highest state of existence (if i may be permitted that phrase). emma goldmann wrote: "the problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one's self and yet at oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one's own characteristic qualities"; "the individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence--that is, the individual--pure and strong". this is pretty much the argument i have made; individuals are of utmost importance, but an individualism which does not even recognize society is inherently faulted. proudhon held a similar sentiment: "individualism is the elementary fact of humanity, its vital principle, [but] association is its complement". even stirner, whose egoism was more sound and well-developed than that of rand, wrote: "man's primitive condition is not isolation or solitary existence but life in society....society is our natural state". for the anarchists, individualism meant uniqueness. there were few qualms about losing freedom (intriguingly, none from stirner) in society, but uniqueness was guarded jealously. uniqueness being the individual's right to be an individual. individualism did not refer to a belief in an isolated and autonomous being, essentially free-floating, who acted more like a molecule than a human being. but this is the meaning which "individualism" has taken today, summarised in thatcher's statement that there are no societies, and only individuals. and this is why i do not call myself an "individualist", but rather a "personalist". "individualism" does not even suggest being human; it only suggests an isolated thing.
here's more on the individual and society from bakunin: "[society] antedates and at the same time survives every human individual, being in this respect like nature itself....a radical revolt against society would therefore be just as impossible for man as a revolt against nature, human society being nothing else but the last great manifestation or creation of nature upon this earth. and an individual who would want to rebel against society...would place himself beyond the pale of real existence."
and "even the most wretched individual of our present society could not exist and develop without the cumulative social efforts of countless generations. thus the individual, his freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not vice versa: society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the higher, the more fully the individual is developed, the greater his freedom--and the more he is the product of society, the more does he receive from society and the greater his debt to it."
i think in a large measure that modern individualists are confusing (or equating) society or community with the state or government. certainly, when you use terms such as "the state" (especially so when it is capitalized), you draw a lot of emotion into the argument. but there is a profound and essential distance between society and the state. a state is a political entity, purely arbitrary and sometimes tyrannical; society is a natural organization of humans that provides a medium through which individuals are raised into personhood. states serve interests, though it is not always that of society; government is the means by which interests are maintained, whether by the state or by society or by individuals. may the government be against the state? possibly, but unlikely. may the government be against society? of course. may the state be against society? of course. need this be the case? of course not. the government and the state are in the hands of society. occasionally it takes revolution to empower society, but more often peaceful means may be used to equal effect.Eyler
Friedman's major theme for this book, his solution to the deadening effect of socialism, "is the role of competitive capitalism -- the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market -- as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom." (p. 4) His minor theme is the role of government under such a system.
well, here he states what i have stated earlier. for friedman and other laissez-faire capitalists, freedom comes from capitalism, not the other way around. but freedom is not equivalent to capitalism, which is why the anarchists were not capitalists, but more often socialists, communists, or syndicalists. "no liberty without equality! no liberty in a society wherein capital is a monopoly in the hands of a minority that shrinks with every passing day and where nothing is shared equally..." wrote kropotkin. freedom may be found in capitalism, but a creative individual will find freedom under any conditions; the anarchist ideal was that liberty was worthless without a concomitant equality. otherwise, following camus, liberty was reduced to "the tyranny of the strongest". so where jefferson and the anarchists meet, i think, is in their insistence on maximizing both individual liberty and social equality. for some anarchists this meant a communist society, where property was abolished and where all was owned communally; for jefferson, this meant a society where the people collectively controlled the government and used it as a tool to serve their collective interests. anarchists were unilaterally opposed to any idea of government, as most saw it only as a means of protecting property (which is largely true); however, i think most would agree with jefferson's ideal of a self-governing society. for the anarchists, capitalism is equated with militarism and statism; the state being a creation of capitalists to protect their interests and property. for jefferson, the idea of self government supercedes the ideal of a free market.Eyler
We think that Friedman errs in assigning to competitive capitalism the role of organizing a free society. Indeed, we would contend that a free society comes first, and competitive capitalism is a natural but subsidiary outcome of a society organized to effect the safety and happiness of its members. Like government itself, competitive capitalism is a potential monster that must be properly controlled and regulated if those primary purposes of society are to be effected. It is our intention, therefore, to examine Friedman's first two chapters that are concerned with principles, and then the remaining chapters that apply those principles to specific problems. We will be looking for the weaknesses in Friedman's arguments, the failure of his suggestions to accomplish their intended results, and the ways in which his solutions actually undermine the safety and happiness of this nation's people, rather than promote those ends.John
i would add that competitive capitalism is not necessarily a "natural" development from a free society, though that it is subsidiary. i would say that economy is a natural development, but that economy takes many different forms, and though we may recognize common themes running throughout cultures and history, it is folly to suggest that one economic system is the natural extension of human nature or has universal applicability.