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Posts Tagged ‘Milton Friedman’

Milton Friedman, Nobel prize winning economist  — and one of my personal idols — was among the most influential libertarian thinkers of the last century. Friedman was primarily a consequentialist, meaning he advocated libertarian policies based on the fact that they work better. Such an approach has the great advantage of political effectiveness. If you can demonstrate that greater freedom also leads to better economic results — better solutions to the Roti, Kapra aur Makaan issues — you will have a much easier time swaying the public to your point of view.

However there were some issues were Friedman advocated for liberty on purely moral grounds. The video below — one of Friedman’s last interviews — is a wonderful example:

This is not to say that there is no consequentialist argument for drug legalization — on the contrary, it is perhaps the finest candidate for such analysis. Hell, even Barack Obama accepts that the war on drugs has been an utter failure. The reason, I think, that Friedman took the moral path here is that some things are just too fundamental to leave to utilitarian analysis. They are worth fighting for their own sake, discounting everything else, for they go to the heart of human existence.

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I have been meaning to do a lengthy post on Naomi Klein for a long, long time. The lady deserves it. She is charismatic, enormously influential among my liberal friends and intellectually dishonest. She is a brilliant manipulator of words and distorter of facts. She is the arch-proponent and promoter of elitist collectivism. Though a mere journalist, her best-selling books have assured her a vaunted place in the leftist pantheon. Like Keynes and Galbraith, she is frequently and approvingly quoted — but here’s the thing, Keynes and Galbraith were great economists (wrong perhaps, but still great). She is a bit like a modern day Ellsworth Toohey.

Unfortunately, my activities this term (editing a paper, writing another, making a research statement, applying for jobs) are leaving me little time for such posts — so it will have to wait. For now, I recommend Jesse Walker’s excellent Reason article.

And if you are in the mood for something longer, do check out Jonah Norberg’s masterly destruction of Klein’s bestselling book “The Shock Doctrine”.

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(Post updated)

Via Reason, I discovered this old video of Chomsky pontificating about pornography and expressing his view that the government should ‘eliminate the conditions in which women can get these jobs’ ‘eliminate the degradation of women’, which is, of course, a long-winded way of saying ‘ban pornography’.

Chomsky’s argument is wrong on so many levels that it is impossible to salvage anything useful out of it. The sad thing is that so many people consider him an intellectual giant.

Here’s another video of Chomsky, one in which he explains why he calls himself a ‘libertarian socialist’. During much of it, Chomsky is nitpicking about etymology (and commiting some serious historical errors); however for me the interesting bit comes at the end, when Chomsky says he is a ‘conservative’ in the true meaning of the term. To understand the relevance of this description, recall that the great Milton Friedman liked to describe himself as really a ‘liberal’. In the US of course, Chomsky is viewed as a liberal and Friedman a conservative.

Chomsky and Friedman are right — the words conservative and liberal aren’t so much about ideology as they are about a mindset. Friedman was a dynamist who wanted things to change. Chomsky, despite his anarchist claims, is an old-fashioned statist who really wishes to maintain and conserve the collectivist society that has been in force for much of human history. Thus, when Chomsky says he is a conservative, he is being surprisingly accurate; the word explains a lot of his regressive and self-contradictory views.

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“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand”

Milton Friedman.

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India is introducing a new rule stipulating that unskilled workers planning to take up a job in the Middle East cannot do so unless they are going to be paid a minimum wage (the exact amount is being fixed by the Indian Government for each Gulf country).

DNA reports (emphasis mine):

In a move that will have far reaching impact on the life of over two million Indian blue collar workers in the Gulf, the rule may drastically cut the number of Indians taking up unskilled jobs in the Gulf countries which will be forced to look for cheaper labour from Bangladesh and Nepal while ensuring that the Indian labour in the Gulf will not be exploited, industry watchers said…

In other words, it is better to compel someone to lose his job than allow him to take it up at a low wage.

What do the workers think? DNA does not say, but the ambassador thinks they will not be too happy:

The Indian ambassador to UAE Talmiz Ahmad said in an interview last week that minimum wages was a sensitive issue as the Indian worker believes he is free to negotiate the terms and conditions he is happy with.

It’s a funny world.

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Clive Crook is an excellent essayist and this passage -from his sterling tribute to Milton Friedman– is particularly close to my heart.

There is no great mystery about the reason for this double standard. Freedoms that express themselves through market relations—the freedom to buy and sell—are widely regarded as ethically compromised. This is the freedom to gratify one’s greed, to exploit others, to con and be conned, where the market is a jungle, a war of all against all. There is a germ of truth in all that, of course, enough to lend it plausibility. But it misses the larger truth, of the market as an astoundingly productive system of voluntary cooperation, in which people of myriad beliefs, loyalties, and faiths can engage with others, freely, and to their enormous mutual benefit. If Friedman, with all his powers of persuasion, could not convince people of that larger truth, it is hard to say what will.

Milton Friedman was, if I may use a word worn from abuse for it is the only one that feels right, a giant. It is a cliche to say that some people will never die. In Friedman’s case it feels like the truth.

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I. 

Any one who has tried to change another person’s position on a political issue (and I use the word political in the broadest possible sense) will attest to the immense difficulty of the task. Human beings are rational creatures, or at least we like to think we are, and it is expected that two rational beings with the same set of data and the same fundamental axioms will come to the same conclusions. But we don’t, and the primary reason of course is that we don’t live by the same axioms.

That may seem strange, in view of the fact that most people value a few core ideals like freedom, happiness and social and economic well-being, but the fact is that even two people who profess the same ideology tend to put put slightly different weightages on the core components of their axioms. (Note however that I make a subtle distinction between the words axioms and ideology. Broadly speaking, the former is the set of basic assumptions that every person has within himself. They are his reasons to live, the fundamental goals that all his actions drive at. The latter is his intellectual blueprint for achieving these goals. )

Difference of axioms are often difficult to spot. Indeed all debates exist on the presumption that the participants have essentially the same axioms. So Mr. Libertarian rails on about the foolishness of socialism and the merits of free-market while Mr. Left-liberal counters him and praises eloquently the virtues of job-security and protectionism. Each thinks that his methods will make the world a better place and the other’s argument is flawed or naive. And sometimes that is indeed the case. After all, the majority of people are, to put it unkindly, not particularly smart, or have pre-existing biases which clouds their reasoning, or judge policies by their intent rather than results.

Yet there are times when two extremely intelligent and reasonable people, having the same data and having had years to chew on them, nevertheless disagree on ideology and are frustrated by the other’s failure to see the light.

Perhaps they should stand back and ask if they mean the same thing by a better place?

II.

Let me now include a simplistic summary of my own political axioms. I intend this to serve the additional purpose of being a useful reference for future posts.

The basic value I consider most important is individual freedom (using the term in a libertarian or classical liberal sense, thus it refers to negative freedom, as opposed to the so-called positive freedom). Broadly speaking, I view the rights to life, property and liberty (=to do as one pleases with life and property as long as one doesn’t initiate force that infringes upon another’s similar liberty) as natural rights, by which I mean the following : I associate a large cost factor to any law that curtails freedom, and I support such an undertaking only if it can be reasonably demonstrated that there are ample gains (enough to balance out this large cost-factor) in doing so with regards to other values (such as security, social justice, convenience or opportunity). Thus my hypothetical support for any law restricting freedom of contract will always be on pragmatic grounds – as a necessary evil. Needless to say, this account is highly simplistic, as it does not specify the size of the cost factor and more crucially, how I generally compare gains and costs with regard to different values. The reader who wishes to deduce approximately my weightages for these quantities is advised to go through all my posts ;)

There is a fine distinction between my position and more standard flavours of libertarianism. Right theorists tend to take a more moral/fundamentalist view of natural rights and are less flexible with allowances. On the other hand, consequential libertarians (like Milton Friedman, who I revere) believe that actions which maximise freedom of contract also tend to maximise other values, such as economic equality and overall happiness. Consequentialism (when well-researched and well-reasoned) is a powerful tool because it can be used to justify libertarian positions on purely utilitarian grounds. Thus consequentialist arguments are more likely to sway those who do not believe in freedom as the fundamental value. Nevertheless, I feel that an inclusion of consequentialist principles in my axioms would be a limiting force and afford me less flexibility on complex issues. If I have to label myself, I’d call myself a pragmatist libertarian.

III.

Just for the record, here are my positions on some issues.

I support:

a) Complete freedom of expression

b) (A certain level of) mandatory taxation

c) Legalization of drugs, prostitution and other victimless crimes, including the right to die.

d) Some gun-control

e) Most free-market initiatives

In the above list, a), c) and e) increase freedom, and they can also be defended on other, purely utilitiarian grounds. On the other hand, b) and d) decrease individual freedom but I support them as necessary evils. I should mention here that my support of gun control, being purely pragmatic, applies only to the present-day scenario and is based on my belief that the current costs of unlimited freedom of gun possession are sadly, too high (incidentally I differ on this point with most traditional libertarians, who oppose gun-control).

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