Milton Friedman would have liked to call himself a liberal if that term hadn’t been appropriated by the Left. He settled for “small ‘l’ libertarian,” as he put it. But he was also a conservative.
I have no evidence he was a “social conservative,” but it’s clear he was a philosophical conservative. That is, Friedman always demonstrated a deep-seeded humility based in an understanding of man’s inherent and inevitable imperfections.
To deal with man’s flaws, a conservative trusts in tradition and community. He also tries to guard against the concentration of power. Friedman warned constantly about the concentration of power, and looked always to the past for a guide. He rejected utopian plans, even those laid by libertarians, and he rejected the enlightenment Cartesian arrogance that leads to the folly of central-planning.
In a 1995 interview with the libertarian Reason magazine, Friedman issued a very interesting criticism of Ayn Rand, probably the most well-known libertarian writer:
I was interested in the history of thought and where it came from. I thought I was going back to some fundamentals rather than creating anything new. Ayn Rand had no use for the past. She was going to invent the world anew.
Presuming to invent the world anew is a brand of hubris common to utopian liberals, neoconservatives, and Randians. All of these philosophies see man’s imperfections as something to overcome, either by well-meaning government, by smart enough foreign policy advisors and enough troops, or by enlightened and unfettered individuals.
Friedman instead called on past wisdom and rejected cults and ideological dogma. He believed in incrementalism, while never ceasing to use his megaphone to articulate the ideal.
And the ideal–economic and personal freedom–reflects the conservative philosophy in another way. Neither Friedman nor any average conservative or libertarian would argue that freedom is a good thing in itself. It is, instead, an indispensable means to our most important ends. From a moral perspective, freedom is a necessary condition of virtue. Christians know that God gave us free will so that we would have the opportunity to freely choose acts of charity and love, and so that we could freely profess and believe the true faith. If we did so under compulsion, these virtues would lose their meaning. This idea resonates in a secular framework, too.
In the economic realm, freedom is again not a good in itself, but it is crucial for three reasons. First, it is immoral for us, whether acting individually or collectively, to take away another man’s economic freedom for the same reasons described above. Second, concentrating economic power–especially in the hands of government-types–creates opportunities for corruption and abuse. Third, economic freedom maximizes societal wealth.
I’ve said before that I consider this last point a happy accident–that I would support less government even if it would make us poorer. But decentralizing wealth and power–and dispersing decision making over hundreds of millions of people–almost magically creates the optimal conditions for wealth generation.
But it’s not magic. The idea of Adam Smith’s invisible hand sounds almost spiritual or superstitious. In fact, the invisible hand idea reflects a Judeo-Christian idea of human nature: The world is naturally in some sort of order. Our souls are ordered in a specific way. Individually, none of us can grasp or replicate this order. Collectively, we only multiply error. But when we pursue our own interests, while obeying the laws of morality, the natural order has an opportunity to shine through.
The invisible hand is a humbling lesson. When we set out deliberately and directly to maximize societal wealth–using policies, subsidies, tax laws, mandates, regulations, and prohibitions to maximize efficiency–we mess up. When we set out with a more humble goal–tending our own garden–we unwittingly become gears in an efficient machine.
For a similar reasons, the conservative will put trust in tradition and community norms rather than try to reason his own way to the good life.
In the 1995 Reason interview, Brian Doherty mentioned to Friedman that the same economic fallacies were resurfacing that Friedman had dismantled decades earlier. The Nobel Prize-winning economist was unsurprised that these particular follies hadn’t been permanently squelched by the light of truth he had shined decades before. Error is a permanent, incurable condition in man. Friedman responded, “All battles are perpetual.”
If Milton Friedman did not think he could “win” the battle, or even invent any “new ideas,” then neither should we. Like him, we should try to preserve the truths that have always been true and fight the battles that will always need fighting.
Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money. He is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.