Freedom vs Friedman

‘This ride is rubbish,’ I said to my friend. ‘It’s a number seven bus,’ he replied. That was the moment he explained to me that the little town of Alton, where I was visiting him, is not the home of Alton Towers. I was frankly gutted. Without the prospect of flumes or fun-rides, and without much prospect of meeting anyone called Rita, Queen of Speed (as apparently one can at the Towers), an evening in Alton was starting to look a little dull. But that was before the dispersion order. Police there now have the power to force groups of two or more people to disperse after certain hours, based on little more than a hunch that those people might, according to the Alton Herald, make people “alarmed or distressed”. Not exactly objective or exact, is it? But I’m sure it won’t ever be applied to anyone unjustly based of prejudice or incorrect assumptions. This kind of legislation never is.

When I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, certain types of groups were also forbidden from gathering. But Alton and the rest of the UK are hardly raining down buckshot and rubber bullets on their local teenagers (though let’s be honest, we’ve all thought about it).

That said, when considered alongside control orders (also in the news last week), ASBOs, terror legislation and the ever expanding raft of laws protecting us from a myriad of nightmares, the Alton example is a little disturbing. In trying to protect the freedom of residents to walk the streets at night, everyone’s freedom has potentially been curtailed by a measure not unlike martial law. The question is: is it worth it?

What freedom is worth, in monetary terms was also in the news last week, as one of the greatest advocates of radical economic freedom, Milton Friedman, died. Media sources were full of praise for the Nobel-prize-winner’s achievements. Commentators lauded his ideas as those that have formed the way we think about economics. And that in itself is scary. Friedman believed that corporations that put social responsibility, environmental concerns or the needs of communities above profit were being ‘immoral’. The only moral responsibility a CEO has, he argued, is to his shareholders. He also taught that the vast majority of resources should be controlled by these very same amoral and exclusively profit-motivated corporations. So while I’m sure he was a lovely guy, I’m not crying my eyes out for his loss.

As a Christian I cannot share Mr Friedman’s view that all human endeavour must necessarily be motivated out of narrow self-interest. It is not what I see when I talk to missionaries, pastors and volunteers. But as a Christian I do mourn the state of a society where the power of Friedman-inspired corporations to control ideas through media ownership, government through campaign funding and individuals through relentless consumerism seems unstoppable.

We are saved for freedom, but every time an advert makes me think I need something that I know I do not, I do not feel free. Every time I want to show my love for someone and the first thing that springs to mind is buying them something, I am not free. Every time a country goes to war to protect an economic interest, poor people across the globe are exploited to increase a profit margin or God’s creation is harmed further to supply me with luxury goods, the freedom it brings me seems less than God’s ideal. So in memory of Milton Friedman, and ignoring his legacy, I am going to try my best to participate in International Buy Nothing Day on Saturday (www.buynothingday.co.uk). Will I succeed? Wonders never cease.

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4 Responses

  1. As an aside, the security forces in Northern Ireland (during the “Troubles”) gave up using rubber bullets: too expensive and too liable to injure. Enter the plastic bullet – cheaper, still as painful I guess but more likely to get a result without fear of eventual litigation. Probably came in nicer colours too..

  2. Your misunderstanding of Friedman couldn’t be more complete. Friedman and his ilk were influenced by the Austrian economists that preceded them. I’ll allow the progenitor of that school to address your misunderstanding. To wit:

    ”We may fully endorse the religious and ethical precepts that declare it to be mans duty to assist his unlucky brethren whom nature has doomed. But the recognition of this duty does not answer the question concerning what methods should be resorted to for its performance.” – Ludwig von Mises

  3. And again:

    No civilized community has callously allowed the incapacitated to perish. But the substitution of a legally enforceable claim to support or sustenance for charitable relief does not seem to agree with human nature as it is… The discretion of bureaucrats is substituted for the discretion of people whom an inner voice drives to acts of charity.
    – Mises

  4. lol. to wit: hahaha. sorry, can’t be serious. hang on. ahem: i do not believe that the discretion of ordinary people is enough. i don’t believe that legally enforcable claims are a bad thing. when such things are left to the discretion of individuals and corporations i doubt very much whether the poor would get any assistance. admittedly I’m writing from a Christian point of view and so the individual has value beyond that which what some people might call human nature sees it as.
    All that said, I’m no expert on Milty. I have, however seen, despite his philosophical roots, his ideas being employed to back up the damaging privatisation and what i like to think of as heartless corporate evil.

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