Over the next series of posts I’m going to rehearse the argument I made for my master’s dissertation exploring what Milton Friedman believed the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ consisted in.
The ‘salesman’ for contemporary neoliberal political economy, an understanding of what Friedman meant by the word ‘freedom’ is essential for understanding Liberalism today.
We live in a competitive capitalist society. But do we live in a free one?
Policymakers have been cutting social security, repealing regulations, and privatising government assets for fifty years. Or, one could say, policymakers have been liberating citizens from taxation, clearing red tape, and democratising control over national resources. This ‘neoliberal’ trend claims to be motivated by the maximisation of freedom; embodied in modern political language (Wilson 2018: 2) (Friedman 1962: 7). Liz Truss connected the small state with freedom when campaigning to become prime minister: ‘Low taxes, a firm grip on spending… giv[es] people the opportunity to achieve anything they want to achieve’ (Truss 2022). Cameron gave the same message in 2010: ‘We will redistribute power from the central state to individuals… creat[ing] opportunities for people take power and control over their lives’ (Cameron 2010). Again with Blair in 1997: ‘I want a country in which people… make a success of their lives, [meaning] we need more successful entrepreneurs, not fewer’ (Blair 1997). This trend dates back to Margaret Thatcher, who is considered the political origin of British neoliberalism: ‘The heart of politics is… people and how they want to live their lives… the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the state at the expense of individual freedom’ (Thatcher 1979).
This political trend is inspired by Milton Friedman’s 1962 writings on the irreconcilable nature of the big state with freedom:
‘It is widely believed… that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem… such a view is a delusion… a society which is socialist… cannot guarantee individual freedom’ (Friedman 1962: 7).
Is the question of freedom answered, then? As we fill our lungs with carbon, our blood with plastic, and our water with sewage, can we recline and sigh ‘freedom, no matter the cost’ (BBC 2019, 2022 a, b)? What do we mean by ‘freedom’? Has Friedman conclusively answered the question?
I find Friedman’s conception of freedom lacking due to its unjustified relativisation of individual goals. This relativisation obscures the state’s obligation to give universal access to the basic goods required for living a good life: the prerequisites for individual freedom. This obligation entails state involvement in the market. I argue for an expansion to the neoliberal conception of freedom, and a material expansion to state intervention in the market.
I split this essay into five parts: this introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. In this introduction I explore the philosophy of freedom, arguing that it is best understood as a single concept with many conceptions. I also detail my method for collecting and analysing evidence, arguing that an imminent, naturalistic approach is best for criticising the neoliberal conception of freedom.
In Part One I reconstruct Friedman’s definition of ‘freedom’, as presented in ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ and ‘Free to Choose’. I make two criticisms of Friedman’s definition; the ‘Engagement Problem’ that I resolve on Friedman’s behalf, and the ‘Quality Action Problem’ that I find unsolvable without an appeal Friedrich Hayek’s definition of freedom, Friedman’s intellectual mentor. I reconstruct Hayek’s definition of freedom in Part Two, summarising the full picture of Friedman’s conception of freedom. Having a naturalistic understanding of how Friedman understands freedom, in Part Three I criticise this conception, arguing that it lacks a full account of the obstacles to freedom due to its unjustified relativisation of individual goals.
I conclude with observations on how Friedman’s problematic conception of freedom has impacted UK policymaking over the last half-century, and speculate on the social and environmental benefits of an expanded definition.
To begin, let’s outline the modern philosophy and terminology of freedom to structure the analysis. This involves distinguishing between the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, ‘intrapersonal’ and ‘interpersonal’ freedom, and whether freedom is a value-free or value-laden concept. I assume that ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have the same meaning.
Isiah Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty
Berlin (1969) argues there are two distinct kinds of freedom: a negative and a positive. Berlin defines negative freedom as the area of control that an individual has in their life that they can act in without interference. This kind of freedom is limited by obstacles, such as chains or laws, since they reduce the number of actions an individual can take without interference (1969: 122). Negative freedom therefore talks strictly through ‘free from…’ statements.
Conversely, positive freedom is concerned with what source of control governs one’s actions. An individual governed by their passions is unfree in this ‘positive’ sense because their ‘self’, defined perhaps as their rational faculties, is not controlling their actions. Their actions are controlled by something outside of themselves: their passions. Positive freedom therefore speaks in ‘freedom to…’ statements that prescribe what a free individual would do, if they are free in the ‘proper’ sense (1969: 131). Thus, Berlin defines two distinct concepts of freedom: freedom from restrictions, and freedom to act according to your own self.
However, these two kinds of freedom are not conceptually distinct, for if they were, all statements about negative freedom (freedom from) would be incoherent if stated in the language of positive freedom (freedom to), and vice versa. But all statements about freedom can be formulated negatively or positively and keep the same meaning (Feinberg 1980: 5). For example, Berlin would define an individual enslaved by their passions as positively unfree, since the source controlling the individual is not that individual’s rational self. But this individual can also be said to be negatively unfree: their passions obstruct them from doing what they would otherwise want to do. Similarly, Berlin defined a chained individual as ‘negatively’ unfree, but this individual is also ‘positively’ unfree because the source controlling their actions is whoever chained them, not themselves. Hence Berlin’s twin definition of freedom collapses.
Berlin may object to these reformulations because he only considers physical, or interpersonal obstacles, like chains, to be proper obstacles to negative freedom. Metaphysical, or ‘intrapersonal’ obstacles, such as fear, should not be considered restrictions on the area of control that an individual can act in without interference; and consequently the twin definition of freedom is saved. However, defining an ‘obstacle’ as necessarily interpersonal is unnecessarily arbitrary. The fear that stops an individual from speaking publicly is rightly considered an obstacle to their actions, even though it is internal to them.
Consequently, I argue with Gray (1991: 15) and Feinberg (1980: 5) that the concept of freedom need not be separated into distinct categories. Freedom statements are all concerned with the same unitary concept of freedom, but present different formulations of that that concept. This unitary concept contains the essential features of freedom; but these essential features can be used in infinite ways, generating ‘endless debate’ (Gallie 1955: 191 – 193).
MacCallum’s Unitary Concept of Freedom
This unitary concept of freedom is provided by MacCallum (1967: 314). MacCallum argues that all freedom statements can be reduced into a formula: X is free from Y to do/be Z. All statements about freedom must be about something (X: an agent, a ‘rational self’), from something (Y: intrapersonal obstacles, interpersonal obstacles), to do or be something (Z: to leave the prison, to live a good life).
Accepting MacCallum’s formula as the exemplar concept of freedom leads to the question of whether this unitary concept is value-free and universal, or value-laden and subjective. Berlin (1969: lv) and Hayek (1960: 18 – 19) argue that freedom, if defined negatively, is objectively and universally applicable. This is because negative definitions cannot bring any of our subjective positive experiences of freedom into the definition; a methodology derived from Kant (1960: 9) (2012: 12).
However, as argued above, the distinction between negative and positive freedom collapses because all statements about freedom implicitly involve prescriptive statements about what the subject of freedom ought to do. Obstacles to freedom have no meaning if they don’t restrict an individual from doing something that they want to do; an obstacle implies a loss of opportunity. Consequently, Berlin and Hayek’s method of defining freedom objectively via negative statements, fails, and MacCallum’s linguistic formula for freedom statements can be considered a value-neutral definition of freedom.
However, all uses of MacCallum’s formula to construct freedom statements are implicitly value-laden through their application to particular cases (Gray 1991: 6).
To summarise, freedom has a core, value-neutral concept in MacCallum’s triadic formula. Any application of this formula to a particular situation involves filling the formula in a value-laden way that is essentially contestable (Gray 1991: 14 – 15).
I therefore seek to uncover Friedman’s conception of freedom and translate it into MacCallum’s triadic formula, displaying its value-laden, normative assumptions.
Methodology: Frankfurt’s Considerations
The method I take to problematise Friedman’s conception of freedom is motivated by Frumer’s argument for a ‘first-generation’ critique of neoliberalism (2019: 137). Arguing that the successful development of neoliberalism has fundamentally altered our language to suit it, Frumer rejects critical engagement done by comparison to values external to neoliberalism itself. Neoliberal society may be contradictory, but such contradictions are not damning; they are features to be explained. Consequently, a forceful criticism of Friedman’s definition of freedom must be based on the immanent phenomenal experience of that definition (2019: 137). I therefore aim to give a naturalistic account of Friedman’s definition of freedom, embedding my analysis and criticism in an immanent understanding of Friedman’s work. I do this through a close reading of Friedman’s primary sources: ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ and ‘Free to Choose’. I include Hayek’s ‘The Constitution of Liberty’ as a primary source for understanding Friedman, as Hayek’s definition of freedom is prominent in Friedman’s formulation of his own views. Through emphasising the primary sources, I place Friedman’s own understanding of freedom at the heart of my analysis, reducing the risk of unwittingly introducing current interpretations of Friedman, or of neoliberalism in general, into my interpretation (Knafo 2017: 94) (Hazareesingh 2008: 150).
This focus on primary sources is, however, not unproblematic. Harrison points out that this approach cannot be considered objective given two concerns (2001: 124). First, due to time and space constraints, I cannot offer a comprehensive reconstruction and evaluation of Friedman’s beliefs. There will be elements of Friedman’s definition of freedom in his other works that I will miss. Second, Friedman’s own words are not an objective account of his own beliefs because these writings were given in order to persuade an audience to pursue particular political outcomes. They are therefore not autobiographical descriptions of Friedman’s beliefs, but persuasive texts that require interpretation to derive Friedman’s position from.
In conclusion, UK political culture is infused with the neoliberal premise that a smaller state increases individual freedom. I investigate whether this premise is sound through a naturalistic reconstruction of Friedman’s understanding of freedom using primary sources. I argue that this requires interpreting Friedman’s work in terms of the modern philosophical understanding of freedom as a unitary, value-free concept that has many value-laden conceptions.
Next, in Part One, I charitably reconstruct Friedman’s understanding of freedom.
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