Milton Friedman, winner of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. One of the intellectual leaders of the Chicago school of economics.

Milton Friedman’s Toxic Legacy

Milton Friedman was a brilliant Chicago based economist who won a noble prize in economics. He was somewhat of a rhetorical genius as well. One can see many recording of his debates with opponents in the 1970s and how he effortlessly demolishes his opponents.

Friedman honed a special debate tactic we frequently see conservative pundits such as Ben Shapiro employ today, which is to take an overly literal interpretation of what your opponent says and then employ a Reductio ad absurdum argument.

Due to his brilliance in debate and contribution to economics as well as appeal to the zeitgeist of the time Milton Friedman has tremendous impact.

One of the most damaging ideas he pushed was the private enterprise only need to concern themselves with maximizing profits for shareholders. Friedman’s idea was that companies simply have to follow the rules, that is it. But simply following the rules to the letter does not make you moral. There is such as thing as the spirit of the law.

Real societies are based on people having some sort of moral code to follow. You don’t screw over people just because it is technically allowed by the law. When you turn morality to be equal to whatever the law books say, you begin a slipperely slope where everything has to be detailed in the law. Where contracts between companies and people become miles long because nobody really trusts each other. Because nobody feels an obligation to observe any rule not inscribed in the law books.

But the real danger of Milton Friedman’s philosophy I think you can see in this brilliantly written article by the New York Magazine.

In 1977, the conservative intellectual Irving Kristol urged business leaders to steer their donations away from public-interest causes and toward the burgeoning network of pro-business foundations. “Corporate philanthropy,” he wrote, “should not be, cannot be, disinterested.” The conservative think-tank scene exploded with reports questioning whether pollution, smoking, driving, and other profitable aspects of American capitalism were really as dangerous as the scientists said.

This quote needs some context. What the article up to this point is about is how conservatives used to trust scientists more than liberals. What changed this was that various scientific discoveries in different areas discovered things which was bad for many American businesses.

Climate research showed e.g. that burning fossil fuels was not such a great idea. Bad for coal and oil companies. Other research showed that smoking was bad. Not good for tobacco companies. The list got long.

Private enterprise operating on the principle that their only obligation to society was to generate profits thus had a completely natural response: They began funding conservative think-tanks that sought to undermine and question science.

The number of books criticizing environmentalism increased fivefold over the previous decade, and more than 90 percent cited evidence produced by right-wing foundations.

Thus profit seeking companies began undermining something as valuable as science, the scientific method and objective-truth. Instead they used enormous amounts of money to spread conspiracy theories, half-truths and paranoia.

In the Milton Friedman model of society, there is nothing wrong with this behavior. Companies spreading conspiracy theories and undermining experts and scientists are in fact operating exactly has Milton Friedman instructed them to behave. They are not breaking the law. They are just advancing their profit interests. Exactly what Friedman told them to do. It is not illegal to exercise your right to free speech. Spreading half-truths is not illegal, although IMHO one should seriously consider looking at German free speech laws, which are stricter against manipulative use of freedom of expression.

Donald Trump’s America is in many ways the outcome of following a Friedman ideology. It is a society where there is no respect for experts and science because one has allowed corporate interests to completely undermine it. Corporate profits has been deemed more important than truth.

Milton Friedman envisioned a world where truth would prevail because people would be willing to pay money for it. He imagine government agencies would not be needed to assure quality and safety of products because a private company would spring into existence offering those services for money. Of course his claim was completely unfalsifiable because this did not happen, he would claim it was proof that people did not want this service. If they wanted it, they would pay for it.

What Friedman seems to not have taken into account is that lies, half-truths and propaganda is more profitable. That more people are willing to pay for distortion of the truth. Or rather that those controlling substantial amounts of funds would be more willing to propagate falsehood than truth.

Free speech was supposed to crowd out lies and propaganda by giving everybody a voice to counter the falsehoods. Trying to correct lies, propaganda and falsehoods on social media today is like drinking from a firehydrant. The liars, propagandists and conspiracy theorists have the upper hand.

Even companies like Google and Facebook don’t profit from truth. Extremist viewpoints generate more clicks and engagement. Hence they give more ad revenue. Hence extreme views and polarizing opinions are promoted. It is all good for business.

This is the toxic stew that Milton Friedmanism has left us. Perhaps time to change?

Enshrining into law that companies are more that profit machines is not liberal fantasy. Many countries already do that. German law e.g. does it. Germany is perhaps a country which should be studied today with some interest because it is a country which knows all to well through its history how corporate interests, lies and propaganda can destroy a country.

Let us not forget that the Nazi party was originally broke and almost destroyed. It was saved by a group of rich German industrialists eager to have a champion that could protect them against liberals and socialists. And so he did. Nazi Germany privatized more companies than any other country on the planet. It enriched the owners of corporations, gave them cheap slave labour to make even more profit.

Let us stop pretending companies are impartial participants in the political landscape. They play a role. That must be taken into account when laws are enacted and shaped.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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