I’ve recently started reading Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, a book that I’ve long wanted to read, but never got around to until now. Friedman has been a fascinating figure to me because he’s someone who was far ahead of his time in understanding the futility of the drug war, yet is also someone whose libertarianism is associated with fascist views. I’ve always wanted to know how much of what we think of Milton Friedman is based upon the things he actually advocated, how much is based on people’s misunderstandings of the things he actually advocated, and how much is based upon what’s happened in American society and our economy since he wrote it.
I’m only through the first 4 chapters, so I’m not quite ready to tackle that entire subject yet, but there were two things this week that compounded my thinking on this subject. First was the intense back and forth at Balloon Juice between E.D. Kain and John Cole. As someone who sits somewhere inbetween the liberal and libertarian poles of thinking, I’ve been incredibly impressed with Kain’s ability to balance the two. I’ve long believed that this is where the real debates need to happen, but that far too often libertarians fall back on overly simplified mantras rather than engaging on the merits. Kain didn’t do that, and in turn, some of the commenters (but not all) chose to fall back on overly simplified mantras about libertarians rather than engaging on the merits of the argument he made.
The second item that got me thinking about Milton Friedman and his influence was this post from Stefan Sharkansky about Mayor McGinn’s jobs plan, which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about when I use the term “overly simplified mantras”:
So. We’ll let city bureaucrats who have no experience creating jobs in the private sector pick and choose the entrepreneurs whom they feel can (1) do the best job of creating jobs in the private sector, or (2) be the most attractive recipients of patronage. That’s destined to turn out well.
Maybe instead of raising taxes on the private sector so inexperienced bureaucrats can destroy even more wealth in the private sector, we just let private enterprises use their own resources to make their own purchasing, investment and hiring decisions?
This is a common sentiment among libertarians; that government “bureaucrats” are like a black hole for public funds meant to boost employment, and that in order to really boost employment, only someone from corporate America can be trusted with such a complex task. Reading through Free to Choose, it’s easy to pick out the passages that lead to this belief, but Sharkansky takes this to an absurd extreme that I’m not even sure Friedman would go along with.
On top of that, Sharkansky doesn’t even seem to understand what he’s arguing against. Here’s a section of the Times article he didn’t excerpt:
The plan didn’t include many new announcements. Much of the money involved is federal stimulus funds applied for under the previous administration. But it teams up the mayor with the business community after an uneasy eight months and puts on paper a collection of things the city can do even in a difficult economy.
George Allen, lobbyist for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said the plan plays off the mayor’s strength — bringing together a diverse group of people and ideas — and will make a true difference in recovering local jobs.
The idea that McGinn isn’t working with the private sector on this is completely baseless. Not to mention that the largest chunk of the money is going to small businesses in the forms of loans and tax breaks, so that they can make their own choices about how to manage that money. You could potentially argue that one of the particular beneficiaries listed in the article is unworthy of assistance because the work they do isn’t going to benefit us in the long run, but Sharkansky is too lazy to do that. Instead, he just repeats a tired old stereotype about government bureaucrats and pretends he’s made some kind of argument. He hasn’t.
I don’t dispute that there are differences between public and private institutions. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses. But how bureaucratic an institution becomes has more to do with its size, rather than whether it exists to serve the public, serve shareholders, or serve itself. There are public institutions that are nimble and serve the public well, and there are private companies that are unbelievably bureaucratic (I’ve worked for several). The key to encouraging job growth tends to be about boosting small-scale entrepreneurship, which much of McGinn’s plan seems focused on. The real tragedy of Sharkansky’s brand of “glibertarianism” is that it often does the exact opposite of that, through giveaways to large scale private institutions that do little to create American jobs or move our economy forward. What I remain unclear about still is whether or not idiocy like this is the logical extension of Friedman’s philosophy, or if this is a bastardization that ignores a significant amount of nuance. At this point, I still think it’s the latter, but it’s a topic I’m hoping to explore in some upcoming posts.