Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Credo Quia Absurdum Est (1st half)

The groups in our society that have the most at stake in the preservation and strengthening of competitive capitalism are those minority groups which can most easily become the object of distrust and enmity of the majority-the Negroes, the Jews, the foreign born to mention only the most obvious. Yet, paradoxically enough, the enemies of the free market- the Socialists and Communists-have been recruited in disproportionate measure from these groups. Instead of recognizing that the existence of the market has protected them from the attitudes of their fellow countrymen, they mistakenly attribute the residual discrimination to the market
-Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism

What makes this statement seem especially ridiculous is that the book was originally published in 1962, two years before the civil rights act was passed. By this account then, Jim Crow laws only register as residual discrimination.

And that illustrates what appears so far to be a pattern in Friedman's thinking. He doesn't seem to understand or at the very least does not acknowledge that freedom, his central organizing principle, is itself fraught with contradiction and complexity. Perhaps in a world where these perfectly free markets actually existed minority groups would in fact be better off in supporting competitive capitalist ideals, but in that world, assumedly, this 'residual discrimination' would not have come into existence in the first place.

Because the truth of the matter is that freedom is only meaningful as a foundational principle to the full spectrum of society if we were starting from a point of true equality. But the truth of this world is not only current inequality but a historical legacy of vast inequality and oppression. There is a reason that socialism was particularly appealing to minority groups and to those in poverty in the first half of the twentieth century in America. This reason is the oppression they faced at the hands of the dominant system of the time, which was an unregulated and quite cutthroat competitive capitalism. Certainly, early twentieth century America was closer to the capitalist ideal than the socialist one. Now the question of what is a socialist ideal is a question that Friedman rightly poses. And I'll have to leave that aside for the moment.

Returning to the notion of freedom, we find that even in Friedman's own thought there is no clarity on what freedom is or how it's achieved. As he says:

Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it does this task (exchange of goods) so well. It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

And then, not five pages later:

Indeed, it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility.

So, people getting what they want when they want it is the crowning achievement of free markets, but the fact that people in fact do this is degenerative and licentious. This is absurd on its face.

The statement from which this blog is titled, which translates as 'I believe because it is absurd', has been attributed to the early Christian apologist (which in the original sense was someone who responds to [here responding to the rise of gnosticism]), Tertullian. What he actually said was was slightly more nuanced and, it would seem, aimed more at the mystical understanding of god in the intellectual irresolvability of paradox, a way and need to go beyond the rational. An idea that came into the West from the great traditions of Eastern religious philosophy, but that was especially apparent in the ideas and arguments about the meaning of the trinity. But anyway.

It could, in its less nuanced form, also apply to Friedman. And that's my generous reading. The other reading of course is that this whole exercise of his, this applique of philosophic principles to his economics, is at heart duplicitious. I'm trying to be generous today, and so I'll just say that it's painfully simple minded (clearly, my generosity knows no bounds).

And to understand the problem, once again, we must look to the intersection of the economic and the spiritual. To the equilibrium of the two mayhaps?

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