Freedom Contra Friedman: The Philosophical Necessity Of Property Rights
For a class on “Modern Economic Perspectives” we are reading through Milton Friedman’s classic work,“Capitalism And Freedom.” The first chapter is more philosophical than economic. It deals with the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom. Although I found Friedman’s arguments both interesting and agreeable, I was a bit disappointed in how he framed the issues.
Friedman basically points out that the link between political freedom and economic freedom is not as clear-cut as some might hope. There have been cases in history where a totalitarian or otherwise collectivist political system has relied on the market as the primary means for allocating resources. No doubt this is due in part because of the inability of government to satisfactorily achieve its stated ends or purposes through a collectivist economic system.
On the whole, however, the countries with the greatest economic freedom have also had the greatest political freedom. Why? This is where Friedman’s argument gets a bit murky. The reason, I think, is because he does not define freedom. Oh, sure, he defines it as the absence of coercion. But that definition is wholly unsatisfactory for defending what he terms liberalism. Because what is coercion? The collectivists paint coercion in very broad strokes. It’s quite common to hear socialists complain that someone has been coerced because they do not have viable alternatives for employment. They must work for, say, a large corporation because that large corporation has driven out of business all the other employers. That’s usually how the argument goes. So the weakness in Friedman’s definition of freedom is that there is no solid definition of coercion.
Although Friedman was a huge supporter of private property and he clearly recognized the link between private property and capitalism, I don’t believe he fully understood the link between private property and freedom (or, at the very least, he did not attempt to elucidate his understanding in this book). At one point in the chapter he notes that freedom only makes sense in the context of multiple people. We may say a Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island, is “free”, but it’s hardly relevant to the question of freedom once more individuals are introduced into the picture. Once we have interaction between multiple people things get a bit more complicated. Say person A is driving a car down the road. Person B stops A and demands that A exit the vehicle so that B may drive it away. Are B’s actions legitimate? Are they compatible with freedom?
We can’t answer that question until we bring up the subject of ownership. If A owns the car then B cannot simply demand that A relinquish control. He will have to attempt to persuade A and, if he is not successful, he will have to give up. On the other hand, if B owns the car then A will be required to exit the vehicle no questions asked.
Let’s suppose that in this particular circumstance A is the legitimate owner of the vehicle. If B takes a gun and tells A he will shoot him if he does not give up the car, I think we can reasonably say that A is being coerced. But, without the knowledge of who owns the vehicle, one would never know who is or is not being coerced against. The point is, freedom and coercion only make sense in the context of ownership- that is to say, property rights.
Friedman’s greatest shortcoming in his chapter on freedom (be it economic or political) is that he does not attempt to ground freedom in property rights. The reason it doesn’t make much sense to talk about freedom in the case of a Robinson Crusoe is because there are no competing claims of ownership. Without anyone else on the Island, Crusoe is the de facto owner of all of the resources on the island*. Because we live in a physical world- and we are physical beings- we take up space. There’s a finite amount of space in this world and so it becomes necessary to draw boundaries that determine who controls what and where. Claims of ownership are as necessary at the individual level as they are at a state level. Individual states claim ownership of land, for example, in order to differentiate their spheres of influence from other states. The point is, in this world with competing interests, claims to ownership are absolutely necessary for there to be any order whatsoever.
Friedman could have made a much stronger case for economic and political freedom had he defined freedom in the context of private property. Political freedom, too, depends on ownership. The ability to advocate for a specific policy in a newspaper is going to depend on who owns the newspaper company. Or the ability to hold a rally depends on who owns the land the rally takes place on. I cannot simply waltz over into my neighbor’s yard and rally there. I would need his permission. So it isn’t simply the freedom to rally in the abstract sense, but rather depends crucially on who owns the location the rally is held.
For those of you who are interested in this issue of ownership and property rights, I highly suggest Butler Shaffer’s fantastic treatise on this very subject. The book is called, “Boundaries of Order,” and can be read for free online here.
*This is assuming, of course, that Crusoe is the first person to ever land on this particular island and that there isn’t a prior claim to ownership by someone else.