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Freedom Contra Friedman: The Philosophical Necessity Of Property Rights

by on January 30, 2011

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.




From → Philosophy

  1. Tate F permalink

    As I read this book, I feel like the best way to describe Friedman is “wishy-washy.” I feel like many of his arguments are based on pragmatism rather than liberalism, such as his chapter on schools. I’m trying to imagine his liberal defense of universal compulsory military service, and as I try to think of it, I’m not sure I can come up with anything that could even be confused with a satisfactory argument, unless it’s “If we don’t have a force large enough to defend us, then there won’t be any liberalism to defend,” but this would assume that we don’t have a large enough military (which I believe Friedman denies in the book). Does he state his reasoning for that statement anywhere else?

  2. Sam permalink

    I think you are correct that Friedman’s arguments are based more on pragmatism than a principled approach to freedom. To a certain extent I think this is fine. I’m not sure I am completely in agreement with the “all or nothing” strategy espoused by Rothbard and others. I think there may be times when pragmatism can be useful.

    For example, many Austro-libertarians are completely against school-vouchers because vouchers gives the government some control over private education (ie, the government could potentially dictate which schools families are allowed to spend their voucher money on and which ones they aren’t). That’s true enough, but there’s a good reason we might want to take that chance and that has to do with the success of more market-oriented educational policies. In other words, we know competition will lead to better schooling and we can use that to show people markets truly do work. In today’s positivist world, people are swayed more often by results than by principle.

    I offer up that example just as food for thought. I know Friedman’s freedom strategy, built largely on pragmatism, is not the way to go. But I do wonder if there are times it might be beneficial (as in the above hypothetical). I dunno. What do you think?

    His suggestion that a draft could be compatible with liberalism is laughable. It’s probably also dangerous. I’m having a hard time coming up with any sort of argument as well. And if he does offer a defense of his draft argument I haven’t seen it yet. Tell me if you find it 😛

  3. Tate F. permalink

    I’m only in the “Monopoly and Social Responsibility” chapter right now, but I do think that Friedman’s freedom strategy (from what I’ve said so far) could be beneficial, particularly as a form of incrementalism. You are absolutely correct in saying that people are swayed more often than by principle. Major changes seem so politically unviable that incrementalism may be the best way to go, at least until you create a seasted.

  4. Tate F. permalink

    Excuse me, “seastead” that is.

  5. Tate F. permalink

    I misread what Friedman stated, which was not universal military service, but universal military training, such as in Switzerland. That seems better than compulsory service, but what makes it better than having universal training for picking cotton?

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