Friedman and Mainstreaming Libertarianism

Although I identify strongly with the ideals of libertarianism, I have always had an uneasy relationship with it. Going through my feed, I came across this meme:


Pretty funny, right? I thought so too. The issue is that most folks who aren’t really familiar with libertarianism view it in this light and many of us view ourselves in this light. While funny in a meme, it’s not too comforting when thinking about governance.

So where does Milton Friedman come in? Friedman almost single-handedly sold the American public on capitalism when the public was moving further toward centralized economic planning. John Chapman does a nice job of describing Friedman’s impact in moving public opinion….

This gets to the heart of the contributions Friedman made as a public intellectual and highly influential policy advocate. By showing the nature of monetary/output causality in a conclusive way, Friedman not only proved that inflation was a monetary phenomenon, “anywhere and everywhere,” but more broadly he showed that monetary instability, and not the crazy whims of investors and their animal spirits, was the main source of economic downturns and depressions. As such, Friedman advocated a “rules-based” Federal Reserve for much of his career, in which increases in the quantity of money would be pre-set at a certain growth level (say, 3-5% per year, in line with income and output growth), as opposed to a Fed which engaged in discretionary activism.

This debate about “rules versus discretion” in turn permeated most all else about his pursuits in public policy, and Friedman was in the end so successful because his policy prescriptions were rooted in both rigorous theory as well as significant empirical observations. That a capitalist economy was inherently unstable and in need of activist (viz., discretionary) government intervention was disproven by neoclassical price theory, in which prices shift to clear markets and quickly move resources to their highest and best use, based on changing consumer preferences and production technologies. And one of Friedman’s great talents was to so cogently explain this in an extemporaneous and audience-friendly way, often mixing in “empirical observations” to confirm his point, that his ideas about the superiority of markets and limits of activist government – indeed, to the point where he was able to illustrate the harm caused by government intervention – were manifestly influential in the rise of Reaganism after 1980. John Chapman|Real ClearMarkets|2012

The are three main self-inflicted obstacles to libertarianism going mainstream, and much of it has to do with too little Friedman and too much “guy on YouTube” trying convince judges that traffic tickets are unconstitutional. That shit just makes us look weird.

The first problem is what feels like a consistent move away from capitalism to the constitution as the foundation to our arguments. Taxation may be theft, but theft may not seem like such a bad idea to the guy down on his luck. We have to convince him because its true that the theft ends up hurting him just as bad as the guy he’s taking it from–maybe worse. Friedman understood that prosperity, not a piece of paper, is what ensures freedom and liberty. Economic freedom was the first true freedom upon which all other freedoms exist because it was the best way to put food on the table. So taxation may be “bad” because much of it is unconstitutional, but taxation is worse because of its impact on our economy.

The second problem may be a judgement call, but I’ll say it anyway–we can be a caustic group of folks. Sure, we follow a nonaggression principle, but more often than not, we lack civility in trying to make our point. A clear example occurred in my community. A group of citizens, headed by a libertarian in the community, wanted to begin video recording volunteer committees that reported to the mayor. These committees are not comprised of government officials or bureaucrats–they are neighbors, not on the payroll, wanting to help out the town. They have no real authority. They just do a lot of research and work to make sure the mayor is informed of what’s going on and what the town needs. These meetings are open to the public.

Without any warning, they (the libertarian crew) walked in and recorded the meeting. Not only that, they posted it on YouTube. How they went about the whole thing came across as unsettling to pretty much everyone. Technically, they were allowed to do it, but it ended up creating bigger problems for them in how they were perceived and with regard to future access to meetings. You can go on YouTube and see countless examples of this kind of behavior, with thousands of likes and comments supporting it, but it hurts us. It makes us look like the pirate in the meme. No one wants a pirate in charge of shit except for other pirates.

Friedman cared about people and cared more about their understanding of a point than trying to score points. He smiled often, was empathetic, and did not capitalize on opportunities where he could’ve easily been mean, and he understood and spoke to people’s hardships. He was not an ideologue; he had a genuine concern for people and believed capitalism was their best hope. His arguments were real-world, pragmatic and understandable. He used parables and metaphors to explain his points, and it made sense because he could back up his points with numbers. He understood the importance of consensus. You can’t ram freedom down people’s throats. They have to understand why it works for them.

Friedman’s message was hopeful, not entitled or bitter. He spoke to the success of capitalism in lifting people out of poverty and less about why government didn’t have a right to take your money. He had something incredible to offer. He avoided complaining or whining.

The third is our lack of an intellectual powerhouse, a figurehead who is well known and apolitical. Ron Paul has an unfortunate association with 9/11 conspiracists, and while he is undoubtedly very smart, he has a difficult time getting his point across in a manner that conveys seriousness and credibility. In many ways he is the antithesis of Friedman; he comes across as adversarial and at times confused. His son is even worse (he couldn’t even take down Christie in a debate).

Libertarianism is on the rise and if we want to capitalize on this trend and break through the third party wall, we should consider being more like Friedman and less like pirates.

Image Credit Friedman

Image Credit -Escape from NY Meme

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