Monday, August 09, 2010

Milton Friedman on Donahue

Yesterday I enjoyed watching these two programs, so I thought I'd share them with you, my readers. The first is from 1979, just before Friedman's TV show of Free to Choose was released; the second is from 1980, just after the book form had been published.

Amongst the things I like are Friedman's continued points that he has no interest in protecting any industry, of business in that industry: If they go broke as a result of deregulation, good! And, related to this, are his demonstrations that regulatory bodies, even if set up with good intentions, become run by the industries they are meant to regulate so as to provide such protection, against the interests of the public.

Further to this is Friedman's scuppering his conservative credentials by whole heartedly supporting the decriminalisation, not just of marijuana, but of heroin. I also liked his argument that safety regulation in car manufacturing has made cars less safe, by raising the costs, and so price of cars, meaning people keep hold of old cars longer.

The things I don't like are his intellectual sleight of hand over military spending. Donahue is quite right to say that Friedman should apply his skepticism of big government to the military, too - and Friedman, of course, is one reason why the US no longer has the draft. Friedman employs a trick to argue that military spending has gone down, whilst also showing, but not admitting, the opposite: It has gone down in relative terms; that is, it has fallen as a proportion of government spending, but since government spending across the board has risen, the fact that some bits have risen faster than military spending does not show that military spending has fallen.

The second bit I don't like is his claim that government is a kind of group through which we (US citizens) work together to get done the things we cannot get done on our own. First off, Friedman knows that the alternative to government doing something is not each individual doing things for themselves - he is, after all, a champion of the free enterprise systme, through which people specialise in the tasks in which they have a comparative advantage, in the expectation that others else will be specialising in the things the first want done, and trade the surpluses, usually by means of a medium of exchange. Friedman himself has said that the free enterprise [i]is[/i] a means by which people mutually co-operate to satisfy their respective needs.

Secondly, Friedman seems to be contradicting himself: Since he has a wider notion of "doing things ourselves" than each individual working for himself, but instead includes voluntary trade, and voluntary co-operation in this, it seems odd to suggest that people form governments to do the sorts of things that they cannot do themselves. The reason is that, if this were the case, there would be no need for governments: If people couldn't dop something themselves, but could get together to form an organisation to do so, and would have an incentive to do so, then this is what they would do. Instead of relying on government to do that thing, they would do it themselves, through these organisations. But since a broader, more plausible notion of "doing things ourselves" that Friedman would likely agree with would include these organisations, Friedman would presumably say that "things we cannot do for ourselves" includes things that these organisations couldn't do. But in that case he seems to be characterising governments as being precisely the type of organisations - organisations through which we get together to do the things we cannot do by ourselves - he says we could not form!

Government is not a club that people got together to create so that they could work together and accomplish things they could not do for themselves. Government is not a club or union. This is not how governments we formed - historically, every state, everywhere and always, had its origins in conquest, in one party imposing its rule on a vanquished foe. And it is not how government have proceeded since then: they have always proceeded by one side using government as institutionalised violence to force the other to their will, usually with the intent of exploiting them economically. In fact, related to this is Friedman's annoying faith in democracy - he points out that regulatory bodies are run by and for the industries they regulate, that government is run for the corporations like Chrysler, and he is fully aware that this is because special interests, like those in big business, have more incentive to try to influence government than the general public, and that government has more incentive to resond to their pressure than that of the general public. But he still seems to characterise the government as something in which we all have as much a say as each other, and that we can, ultimately, have control over. On the contrary, it is because government is not like this that we should allow it as little influence in our lives as possible.

The case for such a position, of course, is what Friedman expertly provides in these programs.

Milton Friedman on Phil Donahue, 1979

Milton Friedman on Phil Donahue, 1980

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Equality of Opportunity

On the Liberal Youth forum I attempted to launch an interesting discussion on equality of opportunity, which I will reproduce here. It is interesting, since the more libertarian inclined liberals are wont to say that they are away of the moral strength of the idea that if person A works harder in a more valuable job than person B, then it is right that A is rewarded more than B, and so reject some crude egalitarianism. They suggest that they compromise by favouring "equality of opportunity" over "equality of outcome": Give everybody an equal opportunity, and then permit whatever inequalities arise out of people pursuing those opportunities as they choose.

A conservative poster, Snuggles, said to a Lib Dem, Sam G, that "Frankly it always comes down to equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome and you are normally on the opportunity side of the debate with us." Sam G, for his part, agreed: "Very true snuggles, and I still am. I realise that I am probably very hard to place in the political spectrum, simply because I have not quite found my spot, which I fully accept. However, if you'll accept it, I don't believe the Conservatives have any wish to promote a level playing field. We presently live in a world that isn't level at all, equal opportunities are growing but no where near anything that could actually be described as potential for all. It would take an active government to create this, one I don't see from the present, which saddens me and was the attempted message of my post. Just my thoughts on the matter, I'm sure you'd disagree."

However, I took issue with the stated aim of creating "equality of opportunity."

Does equality of opportunity make much sense, either? Asking from a philosophical perspective that is, I mean, just what does the phrase "equal opportunity" mean? When are opportunities equal? When everybody has the same opportunity to do the same things?

Beyond that, why is it desirable? Suppose that the number of opportunities I could have could be increased, but without increasing the number of opportunities available to anybody else. Doing so would clearly upset equality of opportunity, but that would mean that maintaining equality of opportunity would mean preventing me from having more opportunities than I otherwise could have.

But then again, that takes us back to just what it means for opportunities to be equal. This thought occurs to me precisely because I realised that I may not care if the number of opportunities available to me is prevented from increasing, because I might not value having those opportunities highly. Gaining the opportunity to eat gooseberry crumble, for instance, would rank pretty low for me right now, because I don't like gooseberries that much (of course, if I am starving in a desert, this opportunity may be worth more). So, when we "equalise opportunity" are we trying to ensure that everybody has the same number of opportunities? Or are we trying to ensure that everybody has equally valuable opportunities? And must they be precisely the same opportunities, so that, for instance, either if I have an opportunity to work for a pizza company, you should have an opportunity to work for the same pizza company? Or for a different pizza company - there should be a pizza company everybody has an opportunity to work for?

Equality of opportunity sounds like a nice compromise, but answering the "equality of what" problem in political philosophy does not answer the question of why egalitarianism is attractive at all.

My chum Ziggy felt he could provide and answer to my question "Asking from a philosophical perspective that is, I mean, just what does the phrase 'equal opportunity' mean?" He said "Well it means you don't bar people from taking advantage of the opportunities to better one's life provided by society etc." But when I responded, "Why is that "equality of opportunity"? Where does the equality bit come in?" he said

Being of the libertarian mindset you’re yet again being all absolutist

When people talk about equality of opportunity they’re talking about greater opportunity & striving towards a situation where all in society have an equal opportunity.

Now its unlikely there will ever be a society where all have equal opportunity but its no bad thing to strive towards all having a greater opportunity.

On the claim that I was being, in some way, "absolutist" I wasn't at all sure what he meant, and told him so.

When Ziggy said "When people talk about equality of opportunity they’re talking about greater opportunity & striving towards a situation where all in society have an equal opportunity," I responded

Are these the same things? They sound like they might even, in some cases, be mutually exclusive. You haven't actually addressed a single part of my original post, which asked what "equality of opportunity" means, and also why it is desirable that opportunities be equal.

To Ziggy's claim that "its unlikely there will ever be a society where all have equal opportunity but its no bad thing to strive towards all having a greater opportunity" I responded

But why? Why not just ensure that people have, say, a minimal amount of opportunities, and then let anybody have as many or as few opportunities as they can obtain after that point?

Striving for "all having a greater opportunity"? What does that mean? "A" greater opportunity implies just one big opportunity, but I doubt you mean that. I suspect you mean more opportunities. But which opportunities? Why would each person what as great a number of opportunities as they can get? Why not a small number of valuable opportunities?

Moreover, striving for "greater opportunity for all" in the sense of increasing the number, or even increasing the number of valuable opportunities, or increasing the number opportunities to gain what is valuable is not the same as increasing equality of opportunity. Indeed, inequality of opportunity could increase whilst "greater opportunity for all" is achieved: By increasing opportunity for some at a much faster rate than it is increased for others. If opportunities should, in some sense, be "equal," then presumably such disparate rates of increase should be prohibited, even if that means not letting anybody and everybody's opportunities increase.

It actually seems to me that Ziggy was not in favour of equality of opportunity at all, or that he had any good reason to be.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Only Caring about Money.

In late spring my parents returned from Central America and told me that one decision they had come to both in the few months they were there, and in the longer time they were in South America, was that they were now both opposed to capitalism.

Naturally, I took this as a challenge!

When pushed further, they explained that what they were opposed to was "caring only about money." The trouble is that opposing people "only caring about money" is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a good reason to oppose capitalism.

First off, nobody, except coin collectors maybe, "only cares about money." If the opposite were the case, then nobody would buy anything, because nobody would want to get rid of the money they had obtained. People don't only care about money; they try to get money in order to get the things they [i]do[/i] care about. If all people cared about was money, then trade would cease, capitalism would collapse!

So the notion the under capitalism people "only care about money" obviously needs to be cleared up. Beyond this, is it only under capitalism that people "only care about money"? The more "capitalist" a country becomes, does it become less and less the case that people care about other things than money, or that the more and more capitalist a country, the more and more greedy people become? That doesn't seem true. I doubt we could say that the teacher in Cuba who quits his job to become a taxi driver for tourists because it pays more is not "caring about money" in a similar sense to most people in more economically free countries like the US or Britain. This guy seems to care about getting money to me!

So, since people care about getting money in economies that have less free markets, plainly opposing people caring about getting money is not sufficient to oppose having free markets. However, as I have already said, people don't "just care about money" - they care about getting money so that they can buy, shortly, or sometime in the future, the things that they do care about. Or so that the can buy what they need to support them getting what they care about. The majority of people working for money in Great Britain right now do so to deliver their families a livelihood that is amongst the highest in the world. They sell labour services, or work as part of a company that itself sells goods that people like and value enough to spend money on, so that other people they love and care about can live well. Not just live, but live well. Of course, this doesn't just occur under capitalism - the teacher that quits and becomes a taxi driver in Cuba probably does so because he can better support his family that way, too. But this sheds further light on the nonsense that people "only care about money."

The odd thing about this "only care about money" criticism, though, is that it condems capitalism, not because of [i]what[/i] people do, but because of [i]why[/i] they do it. Despite being hampered by one of the strictest regulatory regimens in the world, the US pharmaceutical industry still makes a large portion of the world's medicines. The objection is not that they do this, but that they do so for the wrong reason. They should do so because they want to give people medicines, I suppose, not because those that want the medicines will give the pharmaceutical companies, and those that work in them, money for doing so.

But this just means that people should have one fewer reasons for doing things. Why is that a good thing?

In light of the fact that "doing things for money" is not something restricted to capitalism, I am reminded of this film, with Milton Friedman interviewed by Phil Donahue:

However, these two films, acting a part of Ayn Rand's [i]Atlas Shrugged[/i] are interesting, too.