Free to Choose Paperback – 1 Mar 1985
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From the Back Cover
In this classic about economics, freedom, and the relationship between the two, Milton and Rose Friedman explain how our freedom has been eroded and our prosperity undermined through the explosion of laws, regulations, agencies, and spending in Washington, and how good intentions often produce deplorable results when government is the middleman. The Friedmans also provide remedies for these ills--they tell us what to do in order to expand our freedom and promote prosperity. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Milton Friedman is a Nobel prize-winning economist, winning the prize in recognition of his work on the money supply and inflation. However the main (and more important) theme of Free To Choose is a critical look at the road that the free market idea has travelled since it's first clear presentation in 1776 by Adam Smith in the remarkable book, The Wealth of Nations.
To quote Friedman on the power of the free market idea, "if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe that they will benefit from it" or "the price system is the mechanism that performs this task without central direction, without requiring people to speak to one another or to like one another. When you buy your pencil or your daily bread, you don't know whether the pencil was made or the wheat was grown by a white man or a black man, by a Chinese or an Indian. As a result, the price system enables people to co-operate peacefully in one phase of their life while each one goes about his business in respect of everything else."
When this concept is repeated millions of times one has a flexible evolving system that can meet peoples needs in a way that no top-down planned price and production system can hope to match. Is this stating the obvious? - Well it seems not . Friedman uses the greater part of the book to show how the free market idea has been under attack, often in the places where it has generated the greatest wealth in the past.
One way or another government comes into the picture and the reader enters a strange Orwellian world of double-talk where "for your own good" means "for our own good" and "we" are "you".
As democratic governments respond to the question "What are you going to do about it?" without having a clear idea about what is their responsibility, and what isn't , the need for government departments, institutions, committees, etc. continues to grow, adding more leaves and branches to the tree. If one doubts the reality of the growth of government, a good survey of the world economy ( by Clive Crook in The Economist 20th Sept.97) gives figures that support Friedmans observations:
U.S.Government spending as % of GNP
Crook notes that this is after the pro-market anti-big government rhetoric of Thatcher and Reagan. In the U.S. government spending remained unchanged, in the UK it only fell 1% as a result the new philosophy and everywhere else it continues to rise reaching for example 55% in France last year and 65% in Sweden.
The unstated assumption is that somehow governments can undertake activities more successfully than individuals in the new areas that they enter - an idea that Friedman comprehensively shows to be false.
At the end of the book he offers an interesting set of suggestions based around an "economic constitution" and highlights market solutions to government only areas. Nevertheless his own solutions seem to create a problem of their own that he doesn't address at all, namely - "pay enough and you can do what you want" whether this is polluting a lake or limiting quality of education to what you can pay for.
Even if the reader isn't particularly interested in economics this is an exceptionally worthwhile book.
UPDATE: US government spending is now (2011)40% of GNP.
Since the book is a 'personal statement' he often expresses himself philosophically, as opposed to writing with sound facts to back up his arguments. Whether facts are used or not in the text, he tends to promote his deep capitalist persuasion, whilst making little reference to the often justified, opposing arguments.
Having read the socialist-economist: Noreena Hertz's 'Silent Takover', which is written with a bias to the oposite end of the spectrum, reading 'Free to Choose' gave a very different & thought provoking perspective of economic & polical idealogy.
Andrew, Doncaster UK
However, there are a couple of areas where he pushes too far, into regions where it is not at all clear if free market capitalism will work as well as the book promises. Education doesn't simply fit into the free market mold because it's not clear who is buying the education. Is it the parent or the student? Is it the student before education or the student after education? It's also very different from buying shoes, because most people only buy one education; one doesn't get a chance to learn from failed purchases. So, it doesn't quite fit Adam Smith's model of two people, each rationally deciding if the transaction will be beneficial to him/her self.
Thus the book is missing something important: a discussion of how far one can apply the free market model. Friedman assumes it applies to everything, and maybe it does, but there are a lot of important cases where it's not at all clear.
But, really, I shouldn't complain too much. Every book has to stop somewhere, and there is much sense and very little confusion here. It's a readable book, and still relevant, even though history has moved on a bit.
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