Yesterday, we covered Milton Friedman’s ‘Logical Argument’ and it’s flaw, the ‘Engagement Problem’. We found that a free society, individuals would only voluntarily exchange with one another if they are incentivised to engage with one another by the satisfaction of self-interests.
Consequently, the Liberal project is concerned with two ultimate goals: individual freedom and individual satisfaction.
Today, I continue the discussion of Friedman’s Logical Argument with another problem: the ‘Quality of Action Problem’. I find this criticism more difficult for Friedman to deal with.
1.0: The Logical Argument: Recap
To recap, Friedman argues that the best kind of society is one that maximises individual freedom. A free society is consequently one that uses as little government coercion as possible.
This society must organise its members in some way, in order to make gains in productive output. This is best achieved through voluntary exchange, meaning that individuals spontaneously decide what to produce and then trade those things with others, generating net benefits.
Putting this argument into MacCallum’s formula we get: Freedom is of the social individual, from the coercion of other individuals and an inadequate standard of living, to pursue their own self-interest.
But is this everything there is to freedom?
1.1: The ‘Quality of Action Problem‘
A free society is based on voluntary exchange; that’s all. So, what is voluntary exchange?
For Friedman, a voluntary decision is one that has a range of ‘close alternatives’ to choose from (1980: 28). For example, when I go to the market and am faced with a wall of chocolate bars, the bar I eventually choose is chosen voluntarily because the only difference between what was chosen, and what wasn’t, was my own ‘voluntary’ will.
So, a person is free to the extent that they have a wide range of options to choose from. The more choices, the more free they are.
But, is that really it? Let’s alter the thought experiment: instead of buying a chocolate bar, I’m now buying cigarettes.
I go to the market, and am faced with a wall of cigarettes. I choose one, and buy it. Is this exchange voluntary?
Is it still voluntary if I’m addicted to the cigarettes? In this case, buying a packet of cigarettes seems involuntary – a kind of unfreedom. Yet Friedman’s definition states that, so long as I do something, and that there are many ways to do it, then I am free.
The problem here turns on two different understandings of freedom, ones that came up in our introduction: ‘intrapersonal’ and ‘interpersonal’ freedom. Can the issues that we face internally be properly considered obstacles to freedom?
Friedman is only concerned with ‘interpersonal’ obstacles. It doesn’t matter how an individual goes about determining their self-interests, nor what those self-interests end up being. ‘Freedom has nothing to say about what goals an individual chooses’ (1962: 12). The only thing freedom can judge is whether the individual is free to go about pursuing those interests.
Can this position be sustained? Friedman’s mentor, Friedrich Hayek, certainly thought so. We’ll get into his thoughts tomorrow.
Thank you for reading!
Friedman, M. and Friedman, R. Capitalism and Freedom (London: University of Chicago Press, 2002)
Friedman, M. and Friedman, R. Free to Choose (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books Ltd, 1985)
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