Few people are raised in households that fully embrace and promote the ideals of liberty. Most people who deem themselves advocates of liberty are really advocates of limited government. Temporarily ignoring that point, those who come to believe they are advocates of liberty often do so through a tortured path of disappointment and disillusionment with the more celebrated political and philosophical frameworks that rely on various forms of coercion to bring about some so-called greater good. The arguments for creating or defending a society that promotes liberty typically fall into one of three categories: (1) utilitarian – liberty is the most feasible or efficient way to bring about the most desired social and economic outcomes in society, (2) rights – a moral society is one in which natural rights are preserved, with liberty being an essential natural right, and/or (3) logic – liberty is the only logically consistent or rational basis on which humans can build society as all other political or philosophical foundations are rife with contradictions. Of the three arguments, the utilitarian one is the most commonly used when attempting to persuade those who advocate for coercive means. The rights argument is the most compelling when effectively employed as few people will admit that they are willing to champion an immoral system. The logic argument should be able to stand alone, however those who use it are often accused of relying on slippery slope arguments and wasting time on hypothetical extremes.
Acknowledging the challenges of embracing the ideals of liberty in a collectivist world that ridicules those who are viewed as too extreme in their defense of liberty, I hesitate to declare that any book that brings people closer to true liberty may be inimical to liberty. At the same time, when such books provide caveats arguing that certain forms of governmental coercion is necessary, thereby discouraging readers from continuing along the path towards a true liberty position (e.g., anarchism, voluntaryism), it is fair to label such work as inimical to liberty. Milton Friedman’s celebrated book, Capitalism and Freedom qualifies.
The essence of liberty is to be free from the oppression of government. All governments are inherently oppressive as they use the threat of violence to confiscate from the populace through taxation and to compel certain behaviors or limit the actions of the populace through laws and regulations. If a given government was not oppressive, then all actions of that government would be achieved through strictly voluntary arrangements, rendering that government irrelevant. In short, where there is government, there is not liberty, and where there is liberty, there is no government. One cannot accurately claim to be an advocate for true liberty while simultaneously arguing for the necessity of government to secure that liberty (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence). Likewise, one cannot be an advocate for true liberty while arguing that the government is necessary to “protect our freedom” as Friedman tried to explain in the introduction (p.2), or arguing that “government is essential” to determine and enforce the “rules of the game” of the free market (p.15).
Given Friedman’s stated acceptance of the misguided notion of the necessity of government, it is no surprise that he spends most of his efforts arguing from a utilitarian perspective, avoiding the rights argument and ignoring the logic argument. While a liberty oriented approach to dealing with the problems of society may produce the most optimal outcomes (e.g., innovation, wealth creation), such justification ultimately gives way to dangerous considerations that threaten liberty. On numerous occasions Friedman argues that it may be acceptable to allow government to take over certain functions in society so that we can have an umpire to settle disputes (p.25), so we can educate children to become contributing citizens (p.86) or so we can protect property rights (p.162). Those who approach liberty from a rights or logic perspective are typically unwilling to accept the aforementioned infringements upon liberty even if it means sacrificing potential utilitarian gains. Had Friedman taken such an approach, not only would his work have warned people about the threat that too much government poses to liberty, but it would have also helped tear down the dangerously fallacious myth that government is somehow an essential component to liberty. Unfortunately, Friedman goes further than simply proposing to sacrifice liberty in Capitalism and Freedom, he directly attacks liberty by stating that the “consistent [classical] liberal is not an anarchist” (p.32).
Friedman, Milton, and Rose D. Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Antonio F. Buehler
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