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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/11004/milton-friedman-on-intolerance-liberty-mises-etc/

Milton Friedman on Intolerance, Liberty, Mises, Etc.

November 9, 2009 by

In a blog post here a few years ago (Friedman and Socialism), I mentioned a 1991 Liberty article by Friedman that I remembered where he said he was in favor of liberty and tolerance of differing views and behavior because we cannot know that the behavior we want to outlaw is really bad. In other words, the reason we should not censor dissenting ideas is not the standard libertarian idea that holding or speaking is not aggression, but because the we can’t be sure the ideas are wrong. This implies that if we could know for sure what is right and wrong, it might be okay to legislate morality, to outlaw immoral or “bad” actions.

I’ve finally located a copy of the article, “Say ‘No’ to Intolerance” [update: whole issue now available here]. In this article, Friedman writes:

I regard the basic human value that underlies my own [libertarian] beliefs as tolerance, based on humility. I have no right to coerce someone else, because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong.

… If we see someone doing something wrong, someone starting to sin (to use a theological tern) let alone just make a simple mistake, how do we justify not initiating coercion? Are we not sinning if we don’t stop him? Only two bases for a negative answer occur to me that make any sense. One–which I regard largely as largely an evasion–is that there’s no virtue in his not sinning if he’s not free to sin. That may be true. But then, that doesn’t apply to me. It may be no virtue for him. That doesn’t mean I should let him sin: am I not sinning when I let him sin? How do I justify letting him sin? I believe that the more persuasive answer is, can I be sure he’s sinning? Can I be sure that I am right and he is wrong? That I know what sin is?

Note also that this article is one of the sources where Friedman alleges Mises stormed out of the Mont Pèlerin Society meeting in 1947, during a discussion about the progressive income tax, exclaiming, “You’re all a bunch of socialists.” (Also recounted in Lew Rockwell’s Mises and Liberty; Long’s Mises as Radical, and in Guido Hülsmann’s Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism, p. 871.)

Friedman also here reiterates his positivist methodology, and opposition to Misesian praxeology in economics and Randian principle in libertarianism and philosophy. Based on his “tolerant” (which some might deride as unprincipled) views, he again reiterates his support for educational vouchers and the negative income tax.

Friedman was a great libertarian (in fact he was one of the main three or four influences on my own libertarian development), but this is not him at his best.

For further discussion, see Hoppe’s, “The Western State as a Paradigm: Learning from History” (discussing Friedman’s views on “intolerance”; Milton Friedman & Walter Block, “Fanatical, Not Reasonable: A Short Correspondence Between Walter Block and Milton Friedman (on Friedrich Hayek)“; Hoppe’s 1997 Mont Pelerin Society speech, “The Future of Liberalism. A Plea for a New Radicalism“; and Mises’s 1946 memo, “Observations on Professor Hayek’s Plan“; Murray N. Rothbard, “Milton Friedman Unraveled“; and Walter Block, “Milton Friedman, RIP.”

{ 30 comments }

anonymous November 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm

How is Friedman’s idea different from Hayek’s: that central planning is bad because it is impossible for a central planner to know all the peculiarities of time and place? Using the logic you applied to Friedman, does that not imply that central planning is fine if a planner were omniscient? I am interpreting that Friedman did not think it ever possible to be sure of right and wrong… would appreciate some clarification.

PirateRothbard November 9, 2009 at 12:43 pm

He does express a goal of totally abolishing public schools and welfare, he just viewed vouchers and the earned income tax credit as a means to that end.

Curt Howland November 9, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Friedman makes a great introduction to non-Keynesian economics, but he always seems to stop just short of actually getting “it”.

Sure, abolish public school, but not right now.

Yes, government printing presses are why there is inflation, but don’t take the printing presses away from government.

He seems to have been the “safe” radical to be shown on PBS through the 1970s. How neat it would have been to have Rothbard instead!

Saint Simone November 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Seriously, what a load of crap. I can’t believe anybody actually reads that hit piece from Rothbard and takes it seriously.

Moreover, I don’t see what the issue is. His argument sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Inquisitor November 9, 2009 at 1:35 pm

“How is Friedman’s idea different from Hayek’s: that central planning is bad because it is impossible for a central planner to know all the peculiarities of time and place? Using the logic you applied to Friedman, does that not imply that central planning is fine if a planner were omniscient? I am interpreting that Friedman did not think it ever possible to be sure of right and wrong… would appreciate some clarification.”

Actually his argument is more similar to Anton de Jasay’s epistemological arguments in favour of anarchism. Kinsella’s point is that Friedman would support gov’t action if some things were known to be ‘wrong’, even if it violated liberty, I assume.

Jason Gordon November 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Am I not sinning if I sit idly by while Friedman justifies autocratic authoritarianism?

Words and wit do not fail the righteous, only those who abandon them for war.

Jason Gordon November 9, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Sorry, I meant “technocratic” authoritarianism.

bob November 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm

To me, the issue is less about principle than authority. Parents coerce their kids to behave in a certain manner. That’s not terrible.

The thing is, if there were some common acceptance of such actions between adults, who would have authority to claim morals and perform such? There would be a line blurred between morality and power, where moral support could easily be confused for fear and vice versa.

In Restraint of State November 9, 2009 at 3:03 pm

This is exactly like Hayek’s position against central planning because a planner can’t possibly know all that’s needed to correctly plan an economy.

Anyways, I think Friedman got more libertarian as time went on. From watching some Youtube clips in earlier years he mentioned that the reason not to use government to correct “market failures” was because government failure was even more likely.

However in the Youtube videos “America’s Drug Forum” or something like that, he takes the clear libertarian position on drug use when he says laws shouldn’t be used against someone who “may be doing something you and I don’t approve of, but is doing harm to nobody else”

Current November 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This is an interesting little argument…

I’m sympathetic to Friedman’s position, but I think that he’s wrong. He confuses consequentialist arguments with a more cosmic view of morality.

To argue as Cromwell did “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Only really fits in with a consequentialist world-view where morals are an outcome. That is: what creates a good society is what is moral. I agree with that view. But, Friedman confuses it by talking about sin.

iamse7en November 9, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Friedman rocks.

fundamentalist November 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm

I’ve had a hard time taking Friedman seriously since I read that he considered Hayek’s “Pure Theory of Capital” to be incomprehensible. I’m not a particularly smart guy, just average intelligence, but I found Hayek’s book brilliant. I can’t believe the Friedman really didn’t understand Hayek’s book. I think he must have meant that he couldn’t reconcile it with his own school of economics. Which indicates that his love of tolerance didn’t extend as far as economics. His statement about Mises’ praxeology also shows his intolerance bleeding through.

Friedman’s intolerance in economics issues from his irrational faith in positivism. He appears to have believed that data can settle all debates. But empirical evidence should have convinced him by the time he was an old man that empirical evidence had not settled any arguments. It never has and never will. And Hayek’s Nobel acceptance speech should have cut the legs from under Friedman’s irrational devotion to positivism, for as Hayek wrote, most of the data that we need to prove axioms developed by reason are simply not available. But worshipping data as positivists do, they declare the data that they have to be the only kowledge possible.

Friedman refused to see that even though much of the data we need doesn’t exist and might never exist, there is sufficient data to support any crackpot idea because the world of historical data is vast enough that you can find evidence to support any crackpot idea if you massage the data long enough. Friedman’s own “plucking” theory of depressions is a perfect example. He seemed to assume the gdp data is pure and free from any manipulation, whereas in truth gdp data is configured specifically to promote socialism. Friedman was duped and betrayed by the data he loved so much.

fundamentalist November 9, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Friedman clearly was libertarian at heart, so why do statists appeal to him as much as libertarians? Look at Bernanke, who used Friedman’s economics as an excuse for a nearly wholesale nationalization of the banking industry? I think it’s because Friedman never caught on to the contradictions between his economics and his libertarian philosophy. Friedman’s economics was little more than a tweaking of Keynesian econ. Basically, he emphasized the role of money and elevated the status of the Federal Reserve to near god-like proportions.

Of course, he insisted that the Feds didn’t know enough to actively manage the money supply, but his warning got lost in the admiration for the awesome power of the Fed that he promoted in his economic theory. In addition, his book on the Great Depression specifically blamed the Feds for being too tight with money and causing the Depression. But if, as he later wrote, the Feds didn’t know enough to manage the money supply, how could they have known they were being tightwads before the Great D? If Friedman said the Fed was too tight, then his warning aside, the Fed could have prevented the Great D with looser monetary policy and prevented one of the worst disasters in American history. That attributes to the Feds an enormous power for good and implies that Friedman didn’t take his own warnings to seriously.

The conflicts between Friedman’s personal philosophy and his economics demonstrates that he was no where near the intellect of Mises and Hayek. And his sneering at their economics is nothign but an old Keynesian technique.

Current November 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm

“I’ve had a hard time taking Friedman seriously since I read that he considered Hayek’s “Pure Theory of Capital” to be incomprehensible.”

Yeah. The odd thing is that he praised “The Consitution of Liberty” but that book is much more complex, at least in my opinion.

I’m not sure that the problem was that he was “of average intelligence”. I think that after he learnt Keynesian economics he really couldn’t understand anything else.

The same goes for his view on positivism. Like Keynes he preaches that the data should be important, but his ideas are mostly derived from first principles, not from the data. Though he praised positivism theoretically he didn’t thoroughly practice it.

I agree with Fundamentalist’s second post too.

Michael Wiebe November 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Roderick Long has a great response to Friedman’s reasoning here:

“This is a common argument, that there’s some connection between moral skepticism/relativism/subjectivism on the one hand and toleration on the other. For example, Milton Friedman has said it’s a good thing we don’t know what sin is, because if we did we’d have to ban it.

But I think that reasoning is completely wrong. Suppose I say (as I do) that, say, racism and aggression are both objectively wrong. Now if someone says “so if racism is objectively wrong, why can’t we make it illegal?” the answer is that aggression is also objectively wrong. So objective values don’t threaten freedom if freedom is itself one of those objective values.

By contrast, suppose moral values were subjective, so that being for or against racism were merely a subjective preference. Would that tend to make people less likely to ban racism? I don’t see why — not if they think a preference for or against freedom is subjective too. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis were moral relativists; they explicitly claimed that there were different values for different groups, and that was right according to Jewish values was wrong according to Aryan values and so on, without there being any universally valid morality. That didn’t make them tolerant and freedom-loving, though; instead the Nazis said, “peace may be your bag, dude, but conquest is our bag, so hey, we’re going to conquer you.” (not an exact quote)”

Luis Ramirez November 9, 2009 at 6:00 pm

@fundamentalist

“Friedman clearly was libertarian at heart, so why do statists appeal to him as much as libertarians? Look at Bernanke, who used Friedman’s economics as an excuse for a nearly wholesale nationalization of the banking industry? I think it’s because Friedman never caught on to the contradictions between his economics and his libertarian philosophy. Friedman’s economics was little more than a tweaking of Keynesian econ. Basically, he emphasized the role of money and elevated the status of the Federal Reserve to near god-like proportions.”

I guess figures who reach the mainstream like Friedman, Rand and Hayek hold a special appeal to politicians and goverment bureaucrats mainly because they´re are more know amongst the general populace. In a personal sense, these were probably the first libertarian thinkers we encountered and therefore had a first impact on many of us. But, we grow up, we evolve, read other thinkers and inmerse ourselves in other perspectives that are more akin to our way of thinking. Personally, I abandoned Friedman for two reasons: 1- he was very much a Statist, eventhough he considered himself a minarchist, the role he proposed for the state, though limited, was an active one in key and important issues like monetary policies, for example. I had a hard time figuring out how this differed from mainstream economic orthodoxy. 2-he pretty much set-up his critics on straw man arguments, using terms as “incomprehensible”, “inconsistent” without actually offering any viable critiques. Of course, he did change on some issues as the years went by and there´s no doubt that he did offer interesting insights that were instrumental opinion making points of view, like the draft and medical licensing. While others were totally confusing (school vouchures).

Dan Griffing November 9, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Thank you for publishing Friedman’s 1990 ISIL talk about intolerance. For 20 years I was such an ardent admirer of both Rand and Mises that I would not have been able to understand Fridman’s wisdom. Now I can. While both Rand and Mises were great thinkers, their respective deductitve systems emotionally entrap their followers into not seeing potentially dangerous flaws. Adding the inductive, falsifiability of Popper may help as a fact checker to keep ideas consistent with reality.

PirateRothbard November 9, 2009 at 7:27 pm

“That doesn’t mean I should let him sin: am I not sinning when I let him sin?”

This is a normal view if you are talking about your own children.

Stephen M November 9, 2009 at 7:55 pm

I read through the Block and Friedman letters – and I have to give it to Friedman’s interpretation of Hayek.

Friedman makes an important point many doctrinaire Austrians refuse to acknowledge. Friedman was a pragmatist. He thought that certain policies, if enacted, would increase freedom. His Austrian critics chide him for accepting the basic principle of the minimal state (“statism” used a pejorative). But Friedman and Block are talking past each other. Friedman would probably agree with Block that C would be an ideal. The question that Friedman had was how to get from A to C. So he came up with B. Block rejected B as the same as A and only accepted C.

The discussion reminds me of my reading of Edmund Burke’s “A Reflection on the Revolution in France.” Burke criticized the French revolutionaries because they thought they could create a utopian society, The revolutionaries were collectivists but I find that the principle that Burke examines can apply to some Austrians (and I consider myself fairly Austrian). It takes a large amount hubris to think that we can just radically remake society which has been built upon hundreds of years of culture and tradition.

Friedman and Hayek recognized the importance of culture and tradition in the course of history. Some of the more radical Austrians dismiss it. Liberty can be everyone’s goal, but getting from A to C is not as simple as many make it sound.

Pablo Kuri November 9, 2009 at 8:24 pm

@ Fundamentalist,

If you think Friedman is a Keynesian or his economic work is anything resembling Keynesian economics youre wrong. There is a very distinct difference between the cuantitave theory of money and demand pull inflation. Besides that I mostly agree.

gaiapunk November 9, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I can’t believe you folks actually think Friedman was a libertarian. Friedman was a fascist defending formulator of neo-liberalism! Neo-liberalism is a doctrine of mass enslavement, screw that! This is just like the folks that defend Nazi’s like Heidegger. Knowledge without compassion is the opposite of wisdom.

In Restraint of State November 9, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Again, Friedman got more libertarian as time went on. He certainly believed some things that were not libertarian, but changed his mind on some of those as he got older. And yes I certainly would call him a libertarian. It’s just that some of his beliefs were that we should take steps in the right direction….whereas some other libertarians believed that the policies he was proposing were not steps in the right direction.

And no, he certainly wasn’t a fascist…at least for the most part, lol. I guess you could say he was a fascist/socialist when it came to money.

In Restraint of State November 9, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Friedman was definitely a libertarian. And again, he believed in some not-so-libertarian things earlier on but got more libertarian as he got older.

That being said, he did propose some policies that he felt were steps in the right direction that other libertarians did not feel were steps in the right direction.

However, he most certainly wasn’t a fascist. Although, i guess you could say he was socialist/fascist when it came to the subject of money, lol.

In Restraint of State November 9, 2009 at 11:01 pm

sorry for making pretty much the same post twice, lol. The page after submitting the comment kept saying there was an error, so I submitted multiple times.

scineram November 9, 2009 at 11:44 pm

He is correct. If something is wrong you ought to stop it. This is pretty basic stuff. If it requires aggression, that only means aggression is sometimes right.

ktibuk November 10, 2009 at 4:41 am

Leaving aside Friedman’s economics, this subject is about his epistemology.

In this regard, he is 100% anti-Rand.

“A is A” might seem a trivial proposition for many people but the logical conclusions of accepting it or denying it are very profound.

Jason Gordon November 10, 2009 at 10:54 am

There is no distinction between; defense of oneself (and others) against oneself, i.e. moral duty, defense of oneself (and others) against an aggressor, i.e. duty of self preservation (and neighborliness), and defense of another against himself, i.e. moralizing (*not* “corrective” aggression).

Of course these distinctions mean little without a clear definition of aggression — which must flow from a clear definition of rights.

Friedman is really a Utilitarian — albeit a mostly clear-eyed one — who at least recognized the benefits of liberty. Rothbard on the other hand, rather than trying to justify the utility liberty, is intent on showing that anything less than liberty simply can not be morally justified.

Laplace November 10, 2009 at 12:50 pm

“, was an active one in key and important issues like monetary policies, for example. I had a hard time figuring out how this differed from mainstream economic orthodoxy”

Shows how much you know about Friedman now doesn’t it…

Michael A. Clem November 10, 2009 at 4:02 pm

If Friedman was a libertarian, and I think he was to a large degree, then one has to wonder why he thought there was any place for government control of the production of money? The minarchist view is basically that government should protect rights, which means police, military, and courts. How is government supposed to be protecting rights by manipulating the money supply and interest rates?

Lagrange November 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm

“then one has to wonder why he thought there was any place for government control of the production of money?”

Another person doesn’t know their Friedman

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