Friedman, Capitalism and Fantasy

Culture, Fantasy, Genre, Gentleman thieves, Modernity, Philosophy

Fantasy’s often condemned for ignoring reality; but much supposedly rational, descriptive writing can have a tenuous relationship with reality, and with the fundamental structures of reality, too. Stories of the fantastic at least have the virtue of being honest about their fictive nature.

Take Milton Friedman, for example. I’ve just been reading ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ (University of Chicago Press, 2002), which according to Wikipedia ‘makes the case for economic freedom as a precondition for political freedom’, and has been a key text for a wide variety of neo-liberal thinkers – people, you’d think, who were very grounded in reality.

Certainly, Friedman views his work as one that’s rooted in the real. He’s very specific about why he wrote it; to provide material for ‘bull sessions’ and – more importantly – to provide a set of options for status-quo smashing change, that can be held in reserve until they’re ready to be implemented at moments of crisis:

‘That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

The crisis comes; and Milton’s there, ready to defuse it with his ‘alternative policies’. Designed (as he implies they are) to have maximum constructive impact at moments of maximum stress, one assumes that they’ll be as realistic – that is, as rigorously thought through and as practically effective – as possible. The very opposite of fantasy, in fact.

Well, you’d have thought so. And no doubt, you’d have hoped so, too. But in fact – if ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ is anything to go by – Milton’s a fantasy writer too, though there is one thing that sets him apart from the Tolkiens and the Dunsanys and the Moorcocks and the Lovecrafts – they don’t pretend that they’re writing fact.

The first clue to Milton’s duplicity comes in his deployment of apparent historical fact. Take this, for example, on Winston Churchill in the 30s – according to Friedman, a period when Churchill was desperately trying to warn the British against Nazism:

‘He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his views were “too controversial”.’ (p.19)

Friedman takes this as an example of ‘socialism’ stifling ‘dissent’. Or this, on exchange controls (of which he disapproves):

‘To the best of my knowledge they were invented by Hjalmar Schacht in the early years of the Nazi regime’ (p.57)

Their Nazi links of course being self-evident proof that such controls are implicitly linked to Facism in general.

Rooting around on the internet, I couldn’t find any reference to Churchill’s anti-Nazi views being censored; in fact, for most of the 30s he had a regular column in the EveningStandard, seemed to have given major speeches at the Royal Albert Hall and elsewhere every other week, and in fact appeared on BBC radio in (at the very least) 1934, 1935 and 1938, talking on ‘the causes of war’ and similar.

Admittedly, Churchill was prevented from discussing Indian constitutional changes over the airwaves in 1933, but he wasn’t the only person thus restricted; it was felt that the subject was so sensitive that only party leaders could talk about it.

What about Hjalmar Schacht? Well, positioning exchange controls as a fiendish Nazi innovation by linking them with Schacht becomes a little less convincing when you find out who he was. I’ll quote directly from Wikipedia:

‘To greater and lesser degrees, Schacht was involved in numerous attempted coups in the years between his dismissal from the Reichsbank and his imprisonment. Indeed, Schacht was one of the main driving forces behind the 1938 planned coup. At Schacht’s denazification trial (subsequent to his acquittal at Nuremberg) it was declared by a judge that “None of the civilians in the resistance did more or could have done more than Schacht actually did.”

As a result of the various putsch attempts between 1938 and 1941, Schacht was arrested on 23 July 1944, accused of having participated in the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler. He was sent to Ravensbrück and Flossenburg and finally to Dachau.’

Friedman plays fast and loose with history to score rhetorical points; this focus on rhetorical, rather than factual, support recurs throughout the book. Making dubious, counter-factual links between economic behaviour he disagrees with and the Nazis is actually one of his more restrained tics; more usually, he just points out that – if you don’t follow his policies – free society will collapse, pretty much instantly:

‘the issue of legislating rules for monetary policy has much in common with a topic that seems at first altogether different, namely the argument for the first amendment to the Constitution’ (p.51)

‘such a device seems to me the only feasible device for converting monetary policy into a pillar of free society, rather than a threat to its foundations’ (p.55)

‘the subject of international monetary arrangements is… the most serious short-run threat to economic freedom in the United States today – aside, of course, from the outbreak of World War III.’ (p.57)

Incidentally, these statements aren’t substantiated in any deep way; their function, like Milton’s historical references, is rhetorical, not factual. And, like those references, if you prod them a little – they collapse.

The above are only a few examples; there are many more within the book. And that’s just Friedman’s rhetoric – I haven’t even begun to take issue with his arguments, whether economic or more generally sociological.

If I wanted to be typing all night I would – for example – take issue with Friedman’s rather odd understanding of group dynamics (government or trade bodies can do no right; commercial bodies can do no wrong), have a go at his apparent proof that we don’t need any sort of professional licensing (registration is ‘an important first step in the direction of a system in which every individual has to carry an identity card, every individual has to inform the authorities what he plans to do before he does it’ – p.149), register my irritation at his constant straw man arguments, or take issue with his ongoing assumption everyone can have a perfect, rational understanding of the short and long term costs and benefits of any commercial arrangement that they enter into, at any time and apparently at the drop of a hat. Amongst other things.

But, I want to have a bath, so I think I’ll stop there. And in any case, the real aim of this article isn’t to prove Milton Friedman wrong (he does that himself, very ably), but rather to demonstrate how his apparently disinterested assembly of facts is – in fact – a very partial tract, that consistently relies on rhetoric over reason to drive its argument forward. It is, in fact, a fantasy, derived from how Milton would like the world to be, rather than how it actually is.

And that brings me back to the point I was making. Fantastic writing can trigger an aggressively negative reaction from certain kinds of reader; I wonder if part of their anger comes from the way that fantastic writing is so aggressively honest about its unreality, thus casting an unwelcome light on the dishonesty innate in some texts – like Milton’s – that pretend to be factual in their construction and conclusions.

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