An Open letter to Milton Friedman

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Dear Dr. Friedman,

In 1994, you praised Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom as a “manifesto – a call to arms against tyranny.” Prior to this, you also stated several times that you were advocating not for a 19th Centruy Liberalism – not for Laissez-Faire – but for a “new liberalism” based on active government involvement in “clearing the way for markets.” This would become known as “Neoliberalism.” In essence, you made neoliberalism a social and political movement through the Mont Pèlerin Society that saw success in time, legitimated behind a mask of “economic science.” Fifty years later, you and your movement have largely obtained your goals.

This is not an analysis of the details of your ideas, or how specifically your ideas have impacted the human existence, but rather this is to acknowledge that your social and political movement, largely based on your ideas, have won the battle. This is not something that most in social science are willing to admit. However, perhaps one of the shortcomings of people outside of the Economics discipline face in developing a viable resistance or alternatives to your neoliberal movement is the refusal to admit defeat.

The other purpose of this letter is to ask you two fundamental questions: first is whether or not you realize that your prescriptions for a free society have led to the very things that you stood against, and second, is if you thought your ideas would ever go as far as they did in forever altering generations of the human experience? If I may be so bold as to quote your nemesis, John Maynard Keynes, who said that ideas shape the course of history. Your ideas have in fact, as Keynes suggested, altered the course of human history, as most of your ideas are in practice today.

So many things are privatized to the free market – from childhood education to drinking water to prisons, that it’s very difficult to go back. This is what you prescribed for a “free society.” Unions are on their last dying breath. Government is so proactive in enforcing the “rule of law” as it relates to business contracts and debt markets that it has almost foregone any resemblance of a social contract. The right of markets has superseded the rights of man. The social safety net is completely shredded, and has no hope of being repaired. This is just what you and your cohorts in the Mont Pèlerin Society prescribed.

As well, Sociology as a discipline has largely been relegated so far to the margins that now Economists publish more papers about inequality than Sociology does. Political Science as a discipline has been relegated to mastering poll methodology with economic backdrops. While you and the Mont Pèlerin Society were fighting Marxism, the only response that other disciplines could come up with was more Marxism. That was entirely our fault. The result is that Economics as a discipline has nearly taken over all of the social sciences. Now there is Economic Sociology, Behavioral Economics in Psychology departments, Economics of the Family, Economic modeling in Political Science, and even Economics in the Humanities. There has even been a permeation of Economics in the natural sciences, such as Economic Biology. This is exactly as you wanted it.

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Nearly everything in the Academy that you so loved has become market-centered. From science being skewed to support its private funding, to the pay-walled exchange of knowledge, to students & professors having their freedom of thought restricted to market-based principles, for the first time since Plato, the Academy is no longer about knowledge-production that benefits humanity, but rather a statistical production that benefits markets.

I understand that you and Dr. Hayek viewed any kind of “collectivism,” whether a democracy or socialism as something that leads to Fascism. While you’ll undoubtedly object to my comparing you to Karl Marx, you had your own version of Historical Materialism. With the fall of the Soviet Union, of course we can see that Karl Marx may have been a little “off” in his version of Historical Materialism, but what about your version? In your efforts to end “collectivism,” how has the “free market” and “free society” of your neoliberalism worked? Did it indeed stave off the development of Fascism?

Your neoliberalism came with a lot of promises. Your neoliberalism promised to set us “free.” We would all prosper socially, economically and politically. You acknowledged that there would still be poverty, but you also promised that in that poverty, there would be social mobility; the opportunity for all to “better their lot in life.” Has your promise of a better life for all, or at least the potential for it, measured up in the last 20 or 40 years? Has Fascism been relegated to the dustbin of history? Arguably, no.

Your ideas were picked up by your followers, and carried to even further extremes. Democracy is now open to the highest bidder. The IMF now holds democracies hostage by making sure their citizens suffer horrific death & suffering. The European Union and the European Central Bank have become wholly owned subsidiaries of Germany; who can now effect with finance what they used to effect with armies. Global GDP is up but inequality (distribution and allocation) is out of control.

Capitalism now is quite literally the only game in town on the global stage. As such, we can now arguably say no system of social economics has created more global human suffering over the last 20 years than Capitalism. I’m afraid that your promises of a better life for all under neoliberalism have not measured up.

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With the broken promises of your neoliberalism, comes what Keynes warned about in his Economic Consequences of the Peace.” Countries are so riddled with debt under your neoliberalism, and governments are so eager to enforce your idea of the “rule of law,” that Fascism is on the rise. Fascist parties are only one electoral mistake away from power in Hungary, France and the United States. The United States is seeing the rise of its first proto-Fascist leader ever in its history. The very thing that you fought against through your social movement is the very thing that has resulted from your social movement.

Not all of your ideas were implemented however. Healthcare has been deemed a human right in most countries. Developing nations have declared drinking water a human right; albeit it doesn’t seem to be a right in economically advanced nations. Public Education is hanging on by a thread because people cannot bring themselves to consider education not to be a right for children. In all areas where your ideas were thwarted, it seems to be due to the implementation of a social contract; an idea, and a social agreement that some things that human need for existence is a human right. Those areas were your ideas became rooted – where you succeeded, is a result of the acquiesce of human rights and social contracts.

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This is where the failure of Sociology, my social science comes in. Not only has it been marginalized to irrelevance in policy decisions, but it abdicated its publics. It abandoned the idea that public sociology meant getting your hands a little bloody in the everyday social world. When you were calling for the abolition of the welfare state, Sociology became distracted with the shiny objects of post-modernism. When you were calling for privatization of public goods, Sociology ignored Social Contract theory. When it came to inequality, Sociology decided to leave the heavy lifting to the cohorts in your social movement – the economists. After 40 years of Neoliberal control of society, Sociology insists on responding to neoliberalism with more Marxism, and intersectionality in a neoliberal world culture that is devoid of social locations and class relations. As you eloquently pointed out in your book Capitalism & Freedom, where there are winners, there are losers. Where you have won, Sociology has lost. While you specifically called for institutional arrangements to organize society on a neoliberal principle, Sociology has seemed to given up on studying institutional arrangements as an organizer of society.

Did you think that your neoliberal social movement would go this far, Dr. Friedman? Did you think that others would pick up your torch and move neoliberalism into every crevasse and aspect of society? Or was the advancement of neoliberal ideas forever changing the course of human existence just happenstance? Is the state of affairs in the world – the re-rise of Fascism, the end of knowledge production, the end of social contracts, and finance as warfare – is this how you planned it? If so, how is a planned economy by a collective any different than a planned economy by a few economists in a collective movement?

Where you have won, Sociology and Political Science has failed. Those are the sins that we as social scientists must reflect on, come to terms with, and atone for. It is unclear in the forecasting of human social existence, if the field of Economics will ever have to come to any similar reflection.

 

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This entry was posted in Economic Theory, Economics, Markets, Political Economy, Sociological Theory, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

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