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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terriffic intro to free-market thinking..., 10 July 2013
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This review is from: Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Paperback)
Reading Milton Friedman for the first time can be an overwhelming experience. The wealth of ideas coupled with the wry delivery and almost John the Baptist like certitude with which he preaches his version of the economic gospel all make for a challenging, if not occasionally infuriating read.

The central pillars of Friedman's thinking are deceptively simple but the consequences should they ever be fully enacted by any government would be profound. Friedman feels that government is `guilty' until proved `innocent'. Government equals power over individuals, waste, inappropriate resource distribution and the indulgence of what economists call `rent seeking' special interest groups. Governments want to tax, regulate, control and disperse revenues and favours to suit their own particular agendas. Even when they are trying to act in the public interest, governments frequently make matters worse. Extra taxes lead to disincentive effects, extra spending leads to inflation and interventions like minimum wage legislation lead to increased unemployment. The list of potential and actual government failings are lovingly documented by the author. The relish with which he grinds out his dismal litany of state mismanagement and corruption is almost disconcerting, but it is entertaining.

So what are governments for? Well in time honoured Libertarian fashion, as little as possible.
Government should be about up -holding the rights of citizens and business to operate in accordance with their own best interests. So the protection of property rights, the proper fulfilment of contracts and basic civil liberties. Just about everything else can be resolved by the market. This is where Friedman gets serious. He takes on issues that softy `mixed- market' types think of as sacred and untouchable. Discrimination, inequality, education, protection of farm incomes, industrial competition and licensing of occupations, all come under the Friedman hammer. His argument is that government by `featherbedding' unions, producer groups or favourite causes at high costs and nearly always to the disadvantage of citizens and not infrequently the particular groups themselves do more harm than good. He backs up his position with some pretty convincing arguments and reference to data (sadly getting a little out¬¬-dated and relates only the USA) or particular case studies.
If you give markets the chance he argues, they will supply the answer. Discriminating employers for instance will be landed with higher costs and lower profits as they hire the more expensive labour that suits their particular tastes. One of the great advantages he posits is that like love, capitalism is blind. It only seeks the most efficient use of resources and the lowest costs. Your religion, gender, colour or cultural background is simply irrelevant in the market place, just as long as you are competitive. So what need for government if the market as an unintended consequence promotes higher incomes, employment and civil rights?

So where is the flaw in all this free market evangelism? Friedman is rather too keen to down play the virtue of good governance. At least governments are elected and at play lip service to the idea of improving the lot of citizens. Governments are accountable in a way that big business can never be if left to themselves. Monopoly capitalism may confer benefits but competition and choice are not necessarily at the top of the list, viz the 'Robber Barons of late Nineteenth century American industry and finance. Likewise businesses need regulating - why should citizens be left at the mercy of the unscrupulous or the incompetent? Not forgetting of course markets have innate instability built in- inflation, unemployment and issues of social provision cannot or will not always be addressed by the market. When the economy is growing, Friedman wants government to take its foot off the brake, but when there are problems such as the 1929 `Great Crash', he wants to blame government for the `high spirits' of the market. Come on Milton, you can't have it both ways!!

`Capitalism and Freedom' provides great insight into Libertarian economics. It entertains, engages (and enrages on occasion) but is very clear in its line of argument. As a book it is aging gracefully. The data is rather old and very selectively used but the ideas still have much relevance for us all today. Recommended.
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