This is a really classic and instructional video of Miltion Friedman, an interview with Richard Heffner from a program called “The Open Mind”. It is instructional because it gets at the heart of the name of this blog: Changing States.
In the video, Heffner calls Friedman “labeled the foremost conservative economist”. Friedman’s response to this remark is telling – it is very difficult to get the proper name of things, like political ideology. And because it is so difficult (this interview is a sublime example) to properly label political ideologies, it is difficult to understand such labels to the average, “unsophisticated” political observer.
When it is time for Friedman to speak, he starts by addressing being called a “conservative” first, saying that he never labels himself as such. “Let me start at the end of that first; I never characterize myself as a conservative economist" (starting around 1:13). Anyone with in-depth historical knowledge has to know that Friedman stands for right-wing, “small government” conservative libertarianism.
He makes an incredibly lame justification for the argument that he actually isn’t a conservative economics, justifying his “knowledge of the English language” to posit an equivalency between “conservative” in the context of political labeling, and “conserving” as a concept which he takes to mean “keeping things as they are.” This is a false equivalency, “conservative” as it pertains to political ideology is not the same thing as peering into a Webster’s New Collegiate and seeing what that says. Philosophers understand that this coincides with WV Quine’s observation of the discrepancy arising from a lexicographer’s perception of the meaning of the word and being able to communicate the meaning of the word to any average reader. The point being, appealing to his “knowledge of the English language” amounts to nothing more than appealing to contemporary, dominant understandings of traditional concepts instead of dealing with the present-day complexity of such labeling.
So this overall approach might have been a reasonable pitch to make in 1975, but it is not OK today. The fact of the matter is, relying on the circularity of meaning in linguistics has been detailed by WV Quine for over 50 years now, appealing to contemporary semantic definitions is no more than appealing to the opinion of some ol’ lexicographer. And Milton Friedman sure has one funky lexicographer. It’s like saying “hey, I’m reasonably intelligent so just believe when I say that I know what I’m talking about.”
This appeal to a prior epistemological framework allows for a false equivalency, made by Milton Friedman, arguing that merely “preserving” the current status quo is what makes for the sole motivation of the conservative. Well there are a lot of other things that qualifies a particular political activist as “conservative”. The type of rationale just makes things excessively complicated, not reflecting the true underlying order of things, and distancing himself from the average intellect with overly-sophisticated word play.
A lot of contemporary conservatives realize that it takes a certain amount of activism to exert their moral agenda on the rest of society. They have to organize, they have to caucus and subcaucus, they have to get delegates, and they have to financially contribute. What sort of ideologies were developed, and are still developing, as soon as social conservatives when they increase in understanding of the contemporary world? They create media corporations, think-tanks, journals, magazines, columnists and soon bloggers, to propagate information - much like what actually happened in the 1950’s (which happens to coincide with a more world-conscious citizen, influencing the rise of the nonfiction, information-intense genre). George F. Buckley’s The Weekly Standard only stands as one organization, playing a fundamental role, among a broader proliferation of news organizations and think-tanks. The fusion of law and economics as academic disciplines was really applied during this same era, inculcating conservative economic ideologies well past their theoretical utility.
It’s 2012, and 1975 conservative ideology is no longer relevant, founded on a precept of individualism that is invalid. Society around the individual has changed, which thus changes the individual’s eventual possibility in terms of living standards and overall subjective happiness. We are and should be more tolerant of a society that allows the individual to find happiness however that individual desires, not just in land/house ownership.
After he talks about his ill-fitted sense of conservatism, he goes on to state what he takes as true, his belief about conservatism and liberalism, the “fact” that he isn’t conservative because “the true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today, the New Dealers, they are the true conservatives because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on.”
As is plainly obvious, the false tautology is in rare form. The fact of the matter is that he is conservative. He is in favor of capitalism and the dominant conception of property rights, he just believes in moving the present system toward a more ideal form instead of trying to address the possible faults of the system itself. Instead of addressing the prevalence of negative externalities, which cause the degradation of human health, the economic inequalities wrought by supply-side economics, which distorts the political system, and the entire political system’s right-wing bias towards dominant economic and financial institutions, he simply says that he would take the structure of the political system to a more right-wing position.
So what would he do about it? He wants “to dismantle that”. I find this an incredibly difficult struggle to deal with, as it is quite obvious that Milton Friedman is a right-wing archconservative and not a “liberal” as he puts it. This is the first response that he offers, how is the viewer supposed to trust him from this point on?
“I call myself a liberal, in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means of and pertaining to freedom.” And this is a pretty good sentiment, if he actually was a liberal. The point is, as is obvious as soon as his misunderstanding of labeling political ideologies is seen, that what he actually advocates is freedom economically endowed, allowing for those that are already entrenched with a massive amount of capital and property rights to do whatever they want.
So in a sense, he is libertarian. But he is a right-wing libertarian, one that believes that when people are just allowed to do whatever they want, social happiness is maximized. This communicates a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of present-day society. And I know that this video is from ’75, but it is still instrumental in pointing out the existence of corrupt libertarianism, and the corrupt archconservatism which hijacks the liberal label for what seems like rational sense.
And although it may make a ton of sense if critiqued on its merits. But the point is that it’s not metaphysically true. Nowadays, we need an activist government to make sure that future generations are able to enjoy the natural environment, preserved without mass pollution by big business. We need a government which is able to make sure that the gains to living standards brought by productivity increases are spread evenly throughout society (but with the originators of the invention and innovation reaping massive rewards, the backlash against exorbitant CEO incomes is because of the fact that it is selective tax policy founded on the dubious supply-side economics).
We need, and want, a centralized government to make investments in what Thomas Friedman of The New York Times understands as being fundamental to the survival of our democratic-leaning republic. Milton Friedman’s anti-government attitude does not fit the times, even though a lot of people still believe in his overall archconservatism. We would do well to dispel this myth, reasserting a proper role of government which is not ever and ever smaller. We need a government that will take activistic roles in promoting our quality of life, including education and infrastructure, willing to tax those that have profited so much from our democratic republic system in order to keep America the exceptional quality that it has been and is. We need to reclaim this sense of labeling in order to make sure that future generations inherit a nation that is not bigoted, that treats everyone as equal regardless of where you are on the corporate ladder, and that takes the extra step in limiting pollution for the sake of our health rather than for dominant economic institutions’ profit.
We are just about 2 minutes into this almost 30 minute video. I’m too bored responding and critiquing Milton Friedman’s age-old conception of liberty, relying on an out-dated conception of individualism. He obfuscates labeling of political ideology by confusing us with seemingly-sophisticated epistemological appeals (his “knowledge of the English language”). His role as a Nobel Laureate also lends him credibility, with people willing to take his word as fact just because he has fancy, complex credentials. But the fact of the matter is that his objectivist archconservatism is ruining the communitarian sense of patriotism we share being Americans that are willing to spend the money and discipline themselves to make exceptional investments.