Being new to this game – actually, I see that I’m not yet twenty days old in blogworld – I’m not yet clear about the rules. What counts as success? I wonder whether it’s about how many comments get posted. If so, after the initial kind words, my postings have bombed. Though, in defence, I could say look at the quality not the quantity. That’s particularly the case for the intelligent responses to my explanation.
Tristan took exception to my side-swipe at Milton Friedman, and then he had heavy-weight backing from Oxford's own liberal socialist. They really do deserve a response. What’s at issue is whether the Nobel Prize winner for Economics (1977) can be considered a liberal. He certainly would self-identity as one of us liberals, but many have taken that claim as rhetorical positioning. And after all, if we accepted what people say about themselves, we’d have accepted Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a true Liberal Democrat. But let’s give the suggestion a bit more thought.
You could construct a radical revisionist reading of Friedman which would allow us to adopt him into the liberal family. In Capitalism and Freedom, he claimed to be wanting to reduce government interference in the economy, but he did see an important role for the state. It was the government which must regulate businesses and that could be a very large job in Milton’s paradise. For, as Friedman notoriously asserted the social responsibility of a company is to maximise profits. If that's all businesses have to think about, the state is going to have a time-consuming task on its hands keeping the corporations on the straight and narrow.
But Friedman's claim is one that more enlightened business-leaders would now reject. After all, a company’s reputation affects its profits, and that reputation isn’t defined only by the hard skills of selling goods and taking over rivals. It’s also about what the experts call either social capital or goodwill. Down the road from Oxford, at Henley Management College – the oldest business school in Britain – there’s a research centre devoted to the issue.
What, in a nutshell, happens is that, in arguing for a balance between small government and free individuals, Friedman forgets about society. He doesn’t reject the concept entirely, but it’s an impoverished version of society where the only meaning of ‘value’ is the price you see on the packet.
It’s ideas like Friedman’s which are behind that most infamous political statement of the Eighties: Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society.’ To be fair to her (and I’m not sure why we should considering the damage she did to Britain), the context of what she said suggests she was a victim of bad phrasing. The surviving devotees over at the Thatcher Foundation have generously allowed you to judge for yourself. What she was actually attacking was reliance on state intervention, but the force of her phrase seemed to sum up the soullessness of her brand of Conservatism: what was lacking – as in Friedman’s writings – is an understanding of the social context in which each individual exists and constructs their personality.
So, no, I can’t be persuaded to imagine Friedman is an honest liberal, no more than I would grace Margaret Thatcher with that accolade.