Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 4 of transcript and video)

Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series.

Created Equal [4/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980)

During the 19th century, and especially after the Civil War and on into the 20th century, the idea of equality came to have a much more definite and specific meaning than the abstract concept of equality before God. It came more and more to mean that everyone should have the same opportunity to make what he could of his capacities; that all careers should be open to people on the basis of their talents, independently of the race, or religion, or belief, or social class that characterize them. This concept of equality of opportunity offers no conflict at all with the concept of freedom. On the contrary, they reinforce one another. It is no doubt that the concept, even today, is the most widely held.

But in the 20th century, beginning especially abroad and at a later date in this country, a very different concept, a very different ideal has begun to emerge. That is the ideal that everyone should be equal in income and level of living in what he has. The idea that the economic race should be so arranged that everybody ends at the finish line at the same time rather than that everyone starts at the beginning line at the same time.

This concept raises a very serious problem for freedom. It is clearly in conflict with it, since it requires the freedom of some be restricted in order to provide greater benefits to others.

The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.


Participants: Robert McKenzie, Moderator; Milton Friedman; Frances Fox Piven, British Ambassador to the United States, 1977_1979; Thomas Sowell, Professor of Economics, UCLA

MCKENZIE: We now join our guests here at the University of Chicago.

PIVEN: Mr. Friedman is right, that all over the world people are beginning to stir and are striving for a measure of equality for a measure of justice, but I think he demeans and trivializes those struggles when he tells us all that we can’t all have Marlene Dietrich’s legs. Moreover he confuses us by using the term “freedom”. I think what Mr. Friedman means by the term “freedom” is economic license. And economic license __ the economic license of those who control property and those who control capital, has in fact been a threat not only to equality, but a threat to the freedom of peoples all over the world, and not only in Europe and in the United States, but in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America.

MCKENZIE:Let me get two other reactions now to that idea that this new ideal of equality, equality in this world’s goods, represents a very serious threat to freedom. Peter Jay.

JAY: Well first, as the only British person on this panel, perhaps you would like _ allow me to say in passing that I think that many of the things which Professor Friedman says about the British experience in the last thirty years are a gross distortion and a gross travesty of what’s actually gone on in Britain, and I hope that we’ll have an opportunity to come back in the course of the discussion.

MCKENZIE: Very much.

JAY: But I think that your question brings up what is to me the absolute central confusion in the exposition that we saw in the film, and I’m a great admirer of Professor Friedman, I’ve studied him, I’ve listened to him, I’ve debated with him, and always before I’ve found him at least clear, even when he’s been wrong. Today I found him grossly confused, and in this specific and all important respect: Is he telling us that absolute equality is a mistaken objective, in which case I think he’s tilting at windmills, he is attacking a straw man, there is almost nobody on the other side of that argument. Or is he saying that any concern at all by societies and governments with reducing inequality is mistaken, and is not only in conflict with freedom and efficiency and other human objectives, but is absolutely wrong, in which case I think he is talking absolute nonsense. His arguments tend to support the first rather platitudinous proposition that absolute equality, still there’s absolute sameness, is a foolish and exaggerated objective. His arguments do not at all support the second claim that it is wrong to concern oneself with distribution of income and wealth and reducing in equality at all.

SOWELL: First of all, I would disagree violently with the notion that the people are stirring. A very small handful of intellectuals have generated an enormous amount of noise. When I look at opinion polls of blacks in the United States, most blacks in the United States do not take any strong position in favor of equality of results. In fact, most of the polls that I’ve seen of blacks put them, if you want to use this expression, very well to the right of most intellectuals on most of these social issues. It is not the people who are stirring, it is a handful of intellectuals.

The question is not absolute equality; it’s a question of what concept of equality you’re aiming at, whether you’re getting it absolutely or to one degree or the other. Are you aiming at a concept of equality of opportunity at the outlet, or are you aiming at a concept of equality of results? It’s also not a question of whether it’s material goods only. Whether it’s material goods, status, or what not, again the same question comes back: Are you thinking about equality of opportunity, prospective equality, or are you thinking about retrospective results at the finish line? And I think that’s the crucial distinction.

FRIEDMAN: What I mean by equality is the concept I would like to see pursued is the concept that Tom Sowell just discussed of equality of opportunity. The concept that increasingly is being taken up by the intellectual community is equality of results. Now nobody __ and I agree with Peter __ nobody means identity. Nobody __

JAY: You said so. On the film you said so yourself, absolutely.

FRIEDMAN: Excuse me. Nobody__

JAY: All that argument about we can produce one human prototype and put him in a museum.


JAY: That’s exactly what you said.

FRIEDMAN: Nobody, when you press him, will say he means identity. And yet if I take the logic of their argument, almost all the logic of such arguments proceeds as if identity were achievable, as if there were some way in which you could measure individual equality, as, again, as Tom Sowell was saying. You have to ask: In what direction are they moving? See, the fundamental distinction between you and me on this, I believe, is a very different one. I think there’s all the difference in the world between a social or governmental system in which ninety percent of the people tax themselves to help ten percent who are in distress, and a system in which eighty percent of the people in the middle try to tax the ten percent on the top in order to help the ten percent at the bottom. What you end up doing is you end up Mr. A and B and the, you know, the ancient story of the forgotten man. You end up with A and B imposing taxes on C to help D, and some of it, after all, in the process gets in the hands of A and B.

JAY: You’re dodging the fundamental issue which was brought up by Tom Sowell. Are you saying to us that the only form of equality that one’s entitled as a society, in your view, to be concerned with is equality of opportunity and any concern with inequalities of result is illegitimate. That any inequality, however great, thrown up by __ provided it’s thrown up by a free market system and not by a caste system or a feudal system, of which kind you disapprove, that any concern with that is wrong. Are you saying that or aren’t you saying it because it’s all important.

FRIEDMAN: Concern with whom? By whom?

JAY: Concern by the society.

FRIEDMAN: The society doesn’t have concern, only people.

JAY: It has governments, it has laws, it has parliaments.

FRIEDMAN: Only people have concerns. People do certain things through government and I’m not gonna talk about society having values. Society doesn’t have values. People have values.

JAY: All right, is it wrong for people to be concerned about inequality?

FRIEDMAN: It is not wrong for individuals in their private capacity to be concerned. Anybody who is really concerned can do something about it on his own.

JAY: Is it wrong for them to elect governments which do something about it. You yourself__

PIVEN: Individuals act __

FRIEDMAN: It is not wrong for them to elect governments.

JAY: You yourself have supported a negative income tax which is a way of doing something about inequality.

FRIEDMAN: It’s not wrong for us to do something through government about distress.


FRIEDMAN: But there’s a fundamental distinction between relieving distress and doing something about inequality. I see no justification whatsoever for cutting down all the tall trees in order that there be no tree in the forest that is taller than the other.

PIVEN: Mr. Friedman, when you say it could be that, when you say that it is wrong for government to intervene in the free enterprise system to do something about inequality, you evoke a model of a free enterprise system which does not exist and has never existed to a significant extent in history or anywhere in the world. That so-called free enterprise system has always used government. The entrepreneurs of that free enterprise system have always used government and the question that you raise is whether other people can use government to achieve their ends.

FRIEDMAN: That is not the point __

PIVEN: The free enterprise system as it has spread around the world, as it has spread to Asia and Africa and Latin America has spread through the force of arms among other things and those arms were wielded by government. That was government intervention under the name of the free enterprise system, but a government intervention which destroyed the freedoms of many people not least of which are the people of Chile.

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