Thursday, October 29, 2009

Last thoughts on Friedman for awhile

I've finally finished Milton Friedman's Freedom and Capitalism, a slender philosophical volume that purports to solve for us the problem of governments, private enterprise, and the social consequences of the poor and inefficient interaction of the two, the social goods or evils. It took a bit of time as I had to read it in small doses to keep my temperature from getting too hot.

He takes for granted that the markets (which while not a code word for corporations per se, their actions are the bulk of what makes up a modern market [as per supply side theory {which itself has social constructivist forces (the will to believe and all that)}]) will suss themselves out. This is really what his argument comes down to, is that it's only through the perverse incentives the government sets up through it's process of trying to redress past wrongs to present populations (a problem for sure [but the solution of which I would say that is the only reason to enter into the tacit consent of the social contract of fair play and what's mine is mine and yours is yours {the only reason not to start a revolution}]) that keeps the private sector from righting those past wrongs of its own accord.

And in a way Friedman is right because of course real freedom (or freedom for the most with hopefully protections for the few) is true if not pure democracy, one hopes. But what he never explains is why large populations should for example do away with protections against discrimination (I'll return to this one a few times), but maintain protections for wealth and business assets. None of his ideas are consistent with what it would be logical for various majority populations, both in localities, nationalities and globalities (?) to take. Some common numbers that get thrown around a lot in progressive circles are the various percentages on the control of wealth and resources. Globally (and here nationally) some small 5-10% of the population controls some 65-85% (I know I should hunt up the real numbers, but these numbers are within an acceptable range of error for a blogpost, so) of the resources. If you consider what democracy is, it becomes clear that it is absolutely clearly in the rational self-interest of that 90-95% of the population to band together and use the mechanisms of government to redistribute the wealth and resources of this top 5-10%. In purely, bald, rationally self interested terms.

Here we see that pure democracy and pure capitalism in actuality do not naturally mix or converge on each other. And the convergence is, of course, an American illusion. Everywhere (literally every single country on this planet) outside of the United States understands how destructive the Washington Consensus was in South America, in South East Asia during the financial crisis of the late 1990's, in Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the curtain, etc. The truth of the facts on the ground is that the institution of so called free market reforms exacerbates the inequality of wealth, thereby in reality inhibiting the economic freedom of the many in order to give it over to the few for hyper luxurious consumption and the exploitation of local resources and populations by the corporations. This is and has only been achieved outside the United States through the use of military autocracies, and, for example, the populist swing left of South America (and their current virulent hatred of the US [Who doesn't effin' hate us anymore?]) and the success of demagogic left wing politicians to consolidate their own autocratic powers has as much to do with the impositions of the Washington Consensus by international bodies such as the IMF and World Bank or the direct consultation of the former rightist autocrats on economic 'reforms' as it does with, for example, some perceived naturally autocratic nature of populist or leftist movements.

And Friedman's hand in all this has to be seen as a denial of everything he's written about freedom. A man who advised Augusto Pinochet cannot, with any credibility, say anything about freedom that is meaningful and not worthy of our eternal scorn and ridicule. Clearly, his talk about freedom was only in relation to social policies (returning to the earlier example, discrimination laws are perversions of the natural corrections of the market [thereby keeping the markets from correcting themselves], but patent laws are the proper role of government [meaning government's only place is in protecting businesses, not in protecting people {a la democracy (political freedom)}]).

Economic freedom then, and economic freedom of the few over the many, takes primacy over political freedom. And economic freedom essentially means ceding control of society from a government to a mishmosh of corporations (that binge and merge in all kinds of unhealthy ways), which means the curtailing of all kinds of non-consumerist, non-economic freedoms that don't even show up on any type of balance sheet, as currently calculated.

And in pursuit of essentially a rationalization of this, ultimately autocratic or at least demagogic, structure, it remains impossible to remain philosophically consistent the deeper you go into the abstraction. So, Friedman gets caught, and he throws in Anti-trust laws (essentially so he can point out the union exemption and call for its abolishment [and to be sure, there are significant problems with the current structure of labor unionism in the US]) as the pure backstop against corporatist tendencies to strive for monopoly (and this does also apply to the union that's run like a kind of corporation). He never really does explain how or why it is that Anti-trust laws are the one and only form of government intervention in business (beyond enforcing contracts and the like) that he calls for. How does that take primacy philosophically over discrimination laws (which, in a perverse inversion of logic, he compares to 'the Nazi Nuremberg laws')?

He claims that business, when left to its own devices, becomes a bulwark against the centralization of political power, but that's never really been the case. Corporations constantly and consistently collude with government when given the chance, and laissez faire has always been a smoke screen for the co-option of government by corporate interests. Corporations, as is in there currently structured rational interests, invert democracy and create either an autocratic integration of business and gov't (which we've seen in South America on both the left and the right, and increasingly in South East Asia, Russia, China, etc.) or for example the demagogic work that's being done by the right in the US at the present juncture (yes, I'm talking to you Fox News [in truth it is this limited spectrum of left/right equaling democrat/republican that maintains a kind of centrism that remains unbalanced and uncentered, swinging wildly across the spectrum as both sides overreach and fail to work together {balance is not a single two dimensional spectrum kind of deal and trying to build it in that way can only lead to the charismatic use of power for the furtherance of non-democratic aims}]). Democracy has to be subverted (the self interests of the people have to be either ignored by an autocracy or hidden away by a demagogery). It is never clear how true political freedom and the economic freedom of business and consumers (the only vote he seems to value [and if someone suffers from compulsive hyper-consumption {Yes, I'm talking to you America}, can their dollar voting be said to be really free {a convicted drug addict for example will lose his political right to vote because, I assume, it is said he can't live up to that responsibility (although, I have to admit disempowering felons seems like a good way to guarantee recidivism)]}). So how can we reconcile these two forces, these two very different types of freedom?

The reconciliation never occurs. For whatever Friedman may have been as a mathematician and economist, he's a pretty shitty philosopher and an even worse social scientist. And I'm pretty sure (as economics is all about assumption [theory building {philosophy}]) that without the last two the value of the first two can only be in dilettantish games of diversion and delusion. No real solutions to our problems.

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