Hi there!
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.


BBC (2019) ‘Microplastics Found in Animals From the Bottom of the Ocean’ << https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/47402578>&gt; (accessed 05/09/2022)

BBC (2022 a) ‘Be Less Squeamish About Drinking Sewage Water, Says Expert’ << https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62708413>&gt; (accessed 05/09/2022)

BBC (2022 b) ‘Government Set to Miss Air Pollution Goals – Report << https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-61825379>&gt; (accessed 05/09/2022)

Truss, L. (2022) ‘Trusted to Deliver’ << https://lizforleader.co.uk/>&gt; (accessed 30/08/2022)

Wilson, J. A. Neoliberalism (New York: Routledge, 2018)

Thatcher, M. (1979) ‘1979 Conservative Party General Election Manifesto’, << https://web.archive.org/web/20130522104806/http://www.politicsresour ces.net/area/uk/man/con79.htm>> (accessed 30/08/2022)

Blair, T. (1997) ‘New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better’ <<http://labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour- manifesto.shtml>> (accessed 30/08/2022)

Cameron, D. (2010) ‘Conservative Manifesto 2010 Change Society Introduction’ << https://general-election-2010.co.uk/conservative-party- manifesto-2010-general-election/conservative-manifesto-2010-change- society-introduction/>> (accessed 05/09/2022)

Friedman, M. and Friedman, R. Capitalism and Freedom (London: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Frumer, N. ‘Negative Freedom or Integrated Domination, European Journal of Philosophy, vol.28, no. 1 (2019) p.126-141

Berlin, I. Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969)

Feinberg, J. Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980)

Gray, T. Freedom (Singapore: Humanities Press International, 1991)

Hazareesingh, S. ‘Political Theory and the Boundaries of Politics’, in Political Theory: Methods and Approaches, ed. Leopold, D. and Stears, M. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Knafo, S. ‘Critical Methodology and the Problem of History’, in Critical Methods in Political and Cultural Economy, ed. Montgomerie, J. (Taylor and Francis, 2017)

MacCallum, G. C. ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, The Philosophical Review, Jul., 1967, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 312-334

W. B. Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56 (1955), 167–98

3 responses to “The Freedom of Milton Friedman: Introduction”

  1. Lew avatar

    Excellent post, truly well done, I love how quickly and easily you dissolve Berlin’s two-forked definition of freedom. I also find the concept that somehow something meta-physical cannot be a ‘true’ barrier to freedom to be such a ludicrous statement, someone who is steeped in poverty, mental health conditions, or has been brought up with cultural programming is obviously going to have their freedom restricted.
    It could even be worth noting that whilst there is the hypothesis of Neoliberalism warping language around it, I think an element of that is because the ‘winners’ of neoliberalism are the ones who have come out on top and have historically been able to do research, think about philosophy, and decide what proper language is around it, and therefore decide what is ‘civil’. If someone speaks in an uncivil way, then they don’t get their ideas published, meaning there’s a minimum barrier of education required to even share your ideas, let alone have them.
    I’m even engaging in this now, writing in an academic-english way, when if I was being true to myself I would be calling neoliberals bloodsucking fucking vampires who I would much rather see universally dead than debate with, but I don’t think any PhD supervisor would like me speaking so candidly. No wonder then that we have philosophers speaking against metaphysical barriers to freedom when they live in a privileged society without true scarcity— an echo of 19th Century Raj-Viceroys talking about how a famine is good for a society, when sat in a mansion, or indeed Boris Johnson voting against free school dinners, literally killing children, but being protected by the BBC when a grieving parent calls him a cunt.


    1. anthroposamism avatar

      You make a good point on the cultural background to Neoliberalism.

      While Friedman’s thought has my respect, it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that much of the funding for his research came from the Volker Fund (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Volker_Fund).

      The Volker Fund is an explicitly free-market, libertarian organisation. It funded the Mont Pelerin society’s meetings, beginning in 1947 – a meeting of various libertarian intellectuals.
      It is at these meetings that Friedman became a devout libertarian. They connected his economic education with the libertarian ideology, leading to the production of such influential works as ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ and Hayek’s ‘Constitution of Liberty’.

      While Friedman had already found a home in right-wing economic thought, I doubt that it would have produced such a profound impact on the world stage had it not been for the capital provided by the Volker Fund.


      1. Lew avatar

        I’m glad you mention the cultural background, because I feel that much of this is inevitable right? The ones who are published are the ones who have the money, and the ones who have the money are the Neoliberals (at least in western thought in the 40s onwards).
        I’m sure that someone, or many someones, may have previously come up with Friedman’s ideas (or a prototype of them) if they were given the chance, but that person was consigned to be born, work, and die in a field in south-east Asia to produce clothing fibers for sweatshops to make Friedman’s suit.


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