Farewell to a real liberal
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
The following article was originally published by Grand Junction Free Press on November 27, 2006.
Nobel economist Milton Friedman passed away on November 16. He will be missed by people around the world, including us.
When Ari was a senior at Palisade High School (we'll use our first names to keep things orderly), Linn handed him copies of two books, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Friedman's Free to Choose.
At a 2002 event in Denver, Ari had the chance to meet Friedman, who signed the old copy of the book. At the time, Ari wrote, "Friedman is certainly one of the top five champions of free markets and human liberty of the past century. His work has made an enormous difference in the American political climate, and it will be a beacon of liberty far into the future." While Ari has come to disagree with a number of Friedman's political views (because they're not sufficiently free-market), his first lessons in economics came from Friedman's pages.
Many call Friedman a conservative. But in the pages of Capitalism and Freedom he called himself a liberal.
Friedman explained, "As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries... liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home... [and] free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically. In political matters, it supported the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions, reductions in the arbitrary power of the state, and protection of the civil freedoms of individuals."
More recently, the term "liberalism" was corrupted to mean "a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements... In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought."
Friedman argued that the term "conservative" didn't apply to his views. "We do not wish to conserve the state interventions that have interfered so greatly with our freedom," he wrote. He therefore resolved to use the "word liberalism in its original sense -- as the doctrines pertaining to a free man."
Yet many vote a party line and assume they support either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. Former Mesa College professor Mort Perry will often go into fits because of how the media, politicians, and the rest of us throw these terms around without a clear idea of their meaning.
Perry had his political-science students read works from Edmond Burke to Jose' Ortega y Gasset to try to pin down the ideas of conservatives and liberals. Perry was responsible for "Brotherhood" week at Mesa College. Following the theme of conservatism and liberalism, Perry brought in conservative Ernest van den Haag and a liberal named Reverend Troutman from Colorado Springs.
Rand complained about the "undefined rubber-terms of 'conservatism' and 'liberalism' which had lost their original meaning." She cast the real debate as "freedom versus statism."
F.A. Hayek (author of The Road to Serfdom, one of the best commentaries on the evils of socialism), writes that in the U.S. the term "'liberal' has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control." Hayek was puzzled as to why many "true liberals... describe themselves as conservatives" in the U.S.
In his lectures "The Americans in the Revolutionary Era," Marshall C. Eakin defines the beliefs of Classical Liberalism this way: "Humans are rational beings, capable of self-improvement. The best government is one that defuses power and guarantees those most fundamental of political values: individual liberties and equality before the law. Classical liberals like Adam Smith argue in economics: laissez-faire; as few restraints in trade and economic activity as possible."
If you are a classical liberal you pretty much have to let your neighbors do what they want. Such as smoke cigarettes or pot. Drink fattening soda or whiskey. Or, worse yet, your neighbor may read Socrates, J.K. Rowling, Milton Friedman, or other subversives. Your neighbor may want to enter into a contractual romantic partnership with someone of a different color or religion or the same gender.
The term "liberal" shares the same root as liberty. The liberal policy on guns is to allow people the freedom to keep and bear them. The liberal policy on government spending is to maximize the freedom of the individual to control his or her income. The liberal policy on the minimum wage is to allow employers and employees to contract free from political interference. True liberals stand against welfare statists, nannyists, tax-and-spenders, prohibitionists, and economic interventionists.
If we think of the debate in terms of liberty versus state controls, that puts many of today's conservatives and liberals in the same camp of statism. If that describes you, it's time to go back and read your Rand, Hayek, and Friedman.
Rest in peace, Uncle Milt.