Milton Friedman on Self-Government

In the summer of 1962, I read Milton Friedman’s essay, “Is a Free Society Stable?” It was published in a campus quarterly journal, New Individualist Review. A group of students at the University of Chicago published it. It remains the best campus journal I have ever read. It ceased publication after seven years: April 1961 to Winter 1968.
Friedman’s main argument has stayed with me ever since: the case for limited civil government as a way to gain widespread voluntary cooperation.
In this article is the most important sentence Friedman ever wrote. His refusal to adhere to it when discussing central banking, educational vouchers, and the gold coin standard constitutes the major criticism by his Austrian School critics, of whom I am one.
An efficient governmental organization and not an inefficient one is almost surely the greater threat to a free society.
Here, I reprint a section of his article. The complete article is online at the Liberty Fund’s site. Read it here.
THERE IS ANOTHER DIRECTION, it seems to me, in which there is a different kind of a tendency for capitalism to undermine itself by its own success. The tendency I have in mind can probably best be brought out by the experience of Great Britain–Great Britain tends to provide the best laboratory for many of these forces. It has to do with the attitude of the public at large toward law and toward law obedience. Britain has a wide and deserved reputation for the extraordinary obedience of its people to the law. It has not always been so. At the turn of the nineteenth century, and earlier, the British had a very different reputation as a nation of people who would obey no law, or almost no law, a nation of smugglers, a nation in which corruption and inefficiency was rife, and in which one could not get very much done through governmental channels.
Indeed, one of the factors that led Bentham and the Utilitarians toward laisser-faire, and this is a view that is also expressed by Dicey, was the self-evident truth that if you wanted to get evils corrected, you could not expect to do so through the government of the time. The government was corrupt and inefficient. It was clearly oppressive. It was something that had to be gotten out of the way as a first step to reform. The fundamental philosophy of the Utilitarians, or any philosophy that puts its emphasis on some kind of a sum of utilities, however loose may be the expression, does not lead to laisser-faire in principle. It leads to whatever kind of organization of economic activity is thought to produce results which are regarded as good in the sense of adding to the sum total of utilities. I think the major reason why the Utilitarians tended to be in favor of laisser-faire was the obvious fact that government was incompetent to perform any of the tasks they wanted to see performed.

This post was published at Gary North on September 15, 2016.