Capitalism and Freedom – An Essay on Milton Friedman

            In the 1950’s American culture was changing radically with the Beat movement pushing the boundaries of traditional cultural values, and socialism becoming more appealing to many people especially the intellectual class. At the same time, with the publication of Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman, the foundations of the modern conservative movement were being laid. As the country became more “progressive,” conservatism held on to traditional American values and especially the values of small government and free enterprise. Going against a popular culture that more and more began to hate corporations and capitalism, Milton Friedman made his solid and persuasive argument that capitalism promoted and preserved the liberty and prosperity of Americans.

In 1955 Allen Ginsberg published a poem called Howl. This poem became a manifesto for the Beat movement. The Beat generation was made up of artists and writers, many of them veterans of World War II, who were tired of the militarization of culture and the increased materialism in American life.[i] The Beats lived lives of no restraint experimenting with drugs and sexuality. Their writing was very controversial and was criticized harshly for being too obscene and much of it was banned in the United States initially. They hated capitalism and materialism and many lived as nomadic hitchhikers and train hoppers influenced by eastern philosophies including those which praised poverty in search of truth. The Beat’s were the American version of the Bohemian, romanticized bums really; self titled as the “Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac. With the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in 1957, the beat movement was instantly popularized, and this new popularity filtered into the sixties free love movements.

As the culture began to embrace a more relaxed morality and started to consider larger more socialistic types of government similar to those in Europe, conservatives who had remained powerless and silent for many decades began to speak out. In direct response to the cultural shift leftwards, conservative thinkers began to call for a preservation of traditional values on all levels. One of the leading voices for a fiscally conservative and capitalistic society was Milton Friedman.[ii] Capitalism and Freedom was published in 1962, and argued that a shift away from a free enterprise capitalistic society put our very liberty in danger. Friedman argued that the sole role of the American government was to enforce private contracts, foster competitive markets, maintain infrastructure, and defend America from enemies abroad and at home.[iii] He argued that giving the government power to do much else was irresponsible and dangerous. The long time American ideals of personal responsibility and power to the individual became a central idea of Conservatism. Referencing a famous line by John F. Kennedy, Friedman said,

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather “What can I and my compatriots do through government” to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?[iv]

With FDR and the New Deal, the government had expanded dramatically in size and taken an active role in attempting to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Friedman argued that this type of role for government was wrong, and argued that the government should stay out of the private sector and let the markets adjust themselves. Smaller government and lower taxes would create jobs, because people would have more of their own money to spend, and companies would have more of their own money to create more jobs. While government programs like the New Deal had good intentions, Friedman made the point that giving the federal government so much power was dangerous because there was no guarantee that a “good” government would always remain so. Friedman put it so eloquently,

The second broad [conservative] principle is that government power must remain dispersed. If government must exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington […]

The very difficulty of avoiding the enactments of the federal government is of course the great attraction of centralization to many of its proponents. It will enable them more effectively, they believe, to legislate programs that – as they see it – are in the interest of the public, whether it be the transfer of income from the rich to the poor, or from private to governmental purposes. They are in a sense right. But this coin has two sides. The power to do good is also the power to do harm; those who control the power today may not tomorrow; and, more important, what one man regards as good, another may regard as harm.[v]

This principal is a cornerstone of the modern conservative movement, and many agree that the current state of this country is largely because of the blatant disregard for this principal. The government is larger than ever, and the ultimate irony is that many from the baby boomer generation who followed the beats in the flower power movement of the sixties are now the wealthy elite class of the country, the CEO’s of today. Those who, once upon a time, opposed capitalism now owe their success and prosperity to the free market ideals of the conservative movement.

The trend in popular culture today is still leaning towards the progressive stance even though the ideals that Milton Friedman put forward in Capitalism and Freedom have been proven successful time and again, and the socialistic ideals that the progressive movement hold dear have been met with failure continually in Western Europe and most dramatically in the fall of the Soviet Union. While most other countries move back toward a more free market society, including communist China, we can only hope that Americans begin to rediscover the conservative ideals that have made this country great before it is too late and America loses its place in the world as the leader in both personal and economic freedom.


[i] “Howl (1955),”  Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom, 261
[ii] “Capitalism and Freedom (1962),”  Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom, 255
[iii] “Capitalism and Freedom (1962),” Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom, 257
[iv] “Capitalism and Freedom (1962),” Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom, 256
[v] “Capitalism and Freedom (1962),” Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom, 257

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