Milton Friedman on the American Economy (3 of 6)
Uploaded by donotswallow on Aug 9, 2009
THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Milton Friedman
Title: A Nobel Laureate on the American Economy VTR: 5/31/77
Friedman: Now what’s wrong with that? Two things are wrong. First place, nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. We talked about New York City. About seven or eight years ago (I’ve forgotten exactly when it was – Kenneth Galbraith in a n article in New York magazine said there were no problems in New York that could not be solved by the city spending enough money. If my memory serves me right, he said by doubling New York’s budget. Well, in the meantime, New York’s budget has quadrupled, and the problems have gotten worse, not better. And that’s cause and effect. Because when you say spend more money, whose money? The City of New York spent more money, but where did it get it? From its citizens. There is no more money in total to be spent. But nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. So you had more money being spent carelessly, and less money being spent carefully.
In the second place, equally important, you cannot spend somebody else’s money unless you first get it. How do you get it? Ultimately and fundamentally be sending a policeman to take it away from him. So the concept of doing good with somebody else’s money has force or coercion built into it as an essential feature. And those flows, the waste which arises out of spending somebody else’s money and the coercion which is unavoidable, destroy the good and the idea of doing good and convert it into doing bad.
HEFFNER: I’m interested in your second point because I’ve wondered, as you were addressing yourself to the subject, I’ve wondered whether it would be the philosophical climate that’s created, that of the policeman who comes and takes those tax monies, those funds, or is your opposition that of the economist? Is it that of the economist of that of the philosopher? Can we distinguish between them?
FRIEDMAN: We can distinguish between them very much. The economist, as economist, I can say what will be the consequences of doing something or other. As an economist, if you say to me – let me take a New York City problem – if I analyze to you the disastrous consequences of rent control in New York City, the effect which that has had on the deterioration of buildings, on the abandonment of buildings, on the reduction in the tax base, on slums, all of that is a predictable consequence of rent control. It’s a straight matter of technical economics that can be shown with a curve. Wherever rent control was introduced, whenever it was introduced, whether in Britain or in France or anywhere, it doesn’t matter; that’s purely a technical consequence of rent control. On the other hand, if I say, regardless of the consequences it is morally wrong for a government official to force me to rent a piece of property to you for less than the price at which I would voluntarily rent it, at that point I am now speaking as a man with values and philosophy. That is to say, you have both principle and expediency involved. The economist talks to the expediency; and the philosopher, the ethicist, the human being, talks to the principle.
HEFFNER: Now, the philosophers may disagree. Do the economists on this question of rent control and its relationship to New York’s…
FRIEDMAN: Oh, no, no. On rent control there’s no disagreement whatsoever. Oh, the interesting thing is that the public at large believes that economists disagree. The fact is that on most technical subjects in economics you’ll find almost no disagreement.
HEFFNER: All right.
FRIEDMAN: Rent control is certainly one example in which I will challenge you to find from the professional economists from the left to the right, I will challenge you to find anybody who will defend rent control from a technical economic point of view.
HEFFNER: All right. Now, when the program began, I was going to refer to you as this country’s foremost conservative economist. And you demerit that, you object to that characterization. And I can appreciate that. Is it not appropriate or proper though to say that there are economists in this country who fall into a camp that one might generally say is on the right, and others who fall into a camp that others might generally say is on the left?
HEFFNER: Or can we not say that economists disagree on major issues?
FRIEDMAN: Well, they disagree on major political issues. The question is whether they disagree on economic grounds or on noneconomic grounds. First, my objection to conservatives is not the same as the objections to what’s right or left. Right or left are very ambiguous terms. But conservative is a very definite, clear term. A conservative is somebody who wants to conserve, who keeps things as they are.
HEFFNER: And you don’t like the way things are.
FRIEDMAN: I don’t like things. I want to change them. I’m a radical. Who are conservatives today? The New Dealers, the people who are called in this country erroneously, liberals, the people who are in favor of big government. Mayor Beame’s a conservative. Hubert Humphrey’s a conservative. They want to continue along the path we’ve been going. You have two different dimensions along which, it seems to me, you can consider people. One of them they want to keep things the way they are, or change them. Conservative or radical. From that point of view I’m a radical. Second, insofar as things are changed, in what direction do they want to change them? You may have radicals who are people who are not conservative, who want to move farther in the direction we’ve been going, who want to have a completely socialized state, a completely collectivist state. And there is seems to me to the right terms are the ancient and honorable term “liberal” in its original sense and meaning of and pertaining to freedom; people like myself who want to maintain a free society. A word that has been much abused. And collectivists or stateists. People who want to have things organized through the state.
Now, the interesting thing about your question about economists is that there is a misleading impression of disagreement among economists. I’ve had this experience many times. Get a dozen people in a room together, some of them economists and some noneconomists, political scientists, sociologists, journalists, whatever they may be. Start any subject going. Within 15 minutes all the economists will be on the same side. Whatever their political persuasion is. Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have different political views and different political attitudes. But those derive very little from their technical economic discipline, and a great deal from their values, their political orientations. Let me show you, again illustrate. When President Ford two years ago and more had a summit conference in Washington at which there were a collection of economists, to discuss the problems of that time, there was a manifesto issued by all the economists present with the exception I think of two, in favor of a long list of 28 (I think it was) measures at reducing governmental intervention into the economy. Economists from the left to the right were in favor of eliminating interstate commerce commissions in control of rail, of CAB control of airfares. And I now have forgotten of the… But there were, I think 28 such items on which they agreed. So I think the appearance of disagreement is very much greater than the reality.
What happens – let me take the energy problem we started about – suppose you were to ask economists – I don’t care whether they’re on the left or the right – “What would be the appropriate way to handle the energy problem if you could neglect all considerations of political feasibility? As technical economists, how should the energy problem be handled?” I will lay you a large wager that the bulk of the economists, 80, 90 percent will say, “Oh, well, that’s easy. You should let the market go. Let market price oil and market price natural gas.” Among the things that all the economists were agreed on at that summit was that you ought to get rid of the price ceilings on natural gas.
HEFFNER: Now, their differences will arise from what?
FRIEDMAN: At this level their differences will arise because they will say, “Oh, of course that’s the right solution.” But you know it’s not perfectly feasible. And so they go down the trap you were trying to drive me down before. Having accepted that it’s not politically feasible, then instead of being in favor of what I think is the right thing, I’m going to try to ask which is the least bad thing. So the economist comes out and says “Well, as the second best thing…” — he doesn’t even say this, but he thinks it – he says, “Well, I really have to be practical. It’s not feasible. You’re going to continue with price control on natural gas. You’re going to continue with price control of fuel crude oil. So maybe it would be a little better if we allowed those fixed prices to be higher, so we’ll come out in favor of higher prices and not attack the controls.”
HEFFNER: But now, Professor Friedman, you use the word “political.” You say this is a political decision. Is it political, or is it philosophical? Does it relate to the desire to have one’s party reelected? Elect, elect, elect; or spend, spend, spend and the elect, elect, elect? Or is it related to the sense of what we can impose upon the human beings who make up the electorate?
FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, you’re trying to put things into watertight categories that cannot be put there.
HEFFNER: Then take them out.
FRIEDMAN: Human beings are, every human being has a capacity of knowing what he believes is the right thing is also the right thing for the country.