Free to Choose: A Personal Statement

I have been reading Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton and Rose D. Friedman on and off last a couple weeks. To read this book, we need to know first that this book was published in 1980. The global environment was very different then. That said, much of the content I find convincing and I am inclined to agree with the authors. However, some of it I am more inclined to disagree, especially about social welfare. Friedman argues for a laissez-faire economic model without government intervention, such as tariffs, regulations, subsidies and so on. Plenty of examples from history are provided to support this thesis: Britain’s glorious economic growth for a century before WWI, east and west Germany, Hong Kong as a rising star in the 1980s, Japan from 1867 to 1897 vs India after WWII as a comparison. Freedom from governmental intervention is credited for the rapid growth in both economic and political freedom. The comparison of Japan vs Indian exemplifies this argument.

Japan (from 1867 to 1897) relied primarily on voluntary cooperation and free markets – on the model of the Britain of its time. India (1947 to 1980s) relied on central economic planning – on the model of the Britain of its time. The Meiji government did intervene in many ways and played a key role in the process of development. It sent many Japanese abroad for technical training. It imported foreign experts. It established pilot plants in many industries and gave numerous subsidies to others. But at no time did it try to control the total amount or direction of investment or the structure of output….India is following a very different policy. Its leaders regard capitalism as synonymous with imperialism, to be avoided at all costs. They embarked on a series of Russian-style five-year plans that outlines detailed programs of investment. Some areas of production are reserved to government; in others private firms are permitted to operate, but only in conformity with The Plan. Tariffs and quotas control imports, subsidies control exports. Self-sufficiency is the ideal. Needless to say, these measures produce shortages of foreign exchange. These are met by detailed and extensive foreign exchange control – a major source both of inefficiency and of special privilege. Wages and prices are controlled. A government permit is required to build a factory or to make any other investment….Reliance on the market in Japan released hidden and unsuspected resources of energy and ingenuity. It prevented vested interests from blocking change. It forced development to conform to the harsh test of efficiency. Reliance on government controls in India frustrates initiative or diverts it into wasteful channels.

I made an earlier decision not to write about China, but there is one interesting passage about China in this book worthy quoting:

We recently came across a fascinating example of how an economic system can affect the qualities of people. Chinese refugees who streamed into Hong Kong after communists gained power sparked its remarkable economic development and gained a deserved reputation for initiative, enterprise, thrift, and hard work. The recent liberalization of emigration from Red China has produced a new stream of immigrants – from the same racial stock, with the same fundamental cultural traditions, but raised and formed by thirty years of communist rule. We hear from several firms that hired some of these refugees that they are very different from the earlier Chinese entrants into Hong Kong. The new immigrants show little initiative and want to be told precisely what to do. They are indolent and uncooperative. No doubt a few years in Hong Kong’s free market will change all that.

Economic and social progress do not depend on the attributes or behavior of the masses. In every country a tiny minority sets the pace, determined the course of events. In the countries that have developed most rapidly and successfully, a minority of enterprising and risk-taking individuals have forged ahead, created opportunities for imitators to follow, have enabled the majority to increase their productivity.

In this book, Friedman argues that the story of the United States is the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle that was made possible by the translation into practice of two sets of ideas – both, by a curious coincidence, formulated in documents published in the same year, 1776.

One set is embodied in The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, no coercion, no violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals all of whom can benefit. That is why, as Adam Smith put it, an individual who “intends only his own gain” is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”


The second set is from the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

There are many fascinating pieces from this book. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Writing about equality: A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy byproduct, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Though a byproduct of freedom, greater equality is not an accident. A free society releases the energies and abilities of people to pursue their own objectives. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others. It does not prevent some people from achieving positions of privilege, but so long as freedom is maintained, it prevents those positions of privilege from becoming institutionalised, they are subject to continued attack by other able, ambitious people. Freedom means diversity but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged and, in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.

Talking about unions: A successful union reduces the number of jobs available of the kind it controls. As a result, some people who would like to get such jobs at the union wage cannot do so. They are forced to look elsewhere. A greater supply of workers for other jobs drives down the wages paid for those jobs. Universal unionization would not alter the situation. It could mean higher wages for the persons who get jobs, along with more unemployment for others. More likely, it would mean strong unions and weak unions, with members of the strong unions getting higher wages, as they do now, at the expense of members of weak unions.

About conformity vs unanimity: The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity. That is why it is desirable to use the ballot box, so far as possible, only for those decisions where conformity is essential.

On inflation: Five simple truths embody most of what we know about inflation: 1. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon arising from a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output (though, of course, the reasons for the increase in money may be various). 2. In today’s world government determines – or can determine – the quantity of money. 3. There is only one cure for inflation: a slower rate of increase in the quantity of money. 4. It takes time – measured in years, not months – for inflation to develop; it takes time for inflation to be cured. 5. Unpleasant side effects of the cure are unavoidable.


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