Monday, February 20, 2012

The Machinery of Freedom: Private Property

David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman, has a free book online, available here, that's been highly recommended to me by HP. It's called The Machinery of Freedom. There's also audio apparently (here). I think I will check it out and record my thoughts at my blog here.

I did read the first chapter. It's called "In Defense of Property". Friedman writes that "property is a central economic institution of any society, and private property is the central institution of a free society".

As someone with more leftist inclinations of course that strikes me as implausible. Or perhaps it is based on a definition of freedom that I don't share. Let's think about what this means.

Suppose I own lots of land and you have none. You have nowhere to sleep so you set up a tent in one of my fields. Maybe you eat from an apple tree I own where the fruit would otherwise fall to the ground and rot.

Freedom means I can, by force, evict you from my land. Land that is vast enough that I wouldn't even see you if I didn't go looking for you. You can maybe argue that a society set up to allow me to evict you from my land somehow produces better overall outcomes for the majority of people. You could argue that there isn't a better alternative. But is it freedom?

Suppose I invent a hammer. I fashion one from metal and wood. I spend a day making products out of it and at the end of the day I go to sleep. You see my hammer and think you'd like to give it a try. No. Freedom means you are not allowed to use my hammer while I sleep. It's mine. Further, if we want to pursue policies advocated by staunch defenders of intellectual property, you can't fashion one of your own and use it. I'll let you use it, but only let you keep a portion of what you produce and the rest belongs to me. Don't like that bargain? That's fine. I'll find someone else that will take it. It won't be long before I don't actually have to work. I live off the surplus labor of others. Is this freedom?

I think defenders of property rights play off of a misconception (illustrated above). When you hear Ron Paul say property rights are sacrosanct you think to yourself that you own your toothbrush and car, so it's wrong to have someone take them from you. But that's not really what he means. Everyone, including a socialist, says you should keep your toothbrush. The argument is not about that. It's about who controls the means of production. Should workers control it? Or should investors control it? Ron Paul thinks investors should control it, not workers. The socialist thinks the reverse.

Friedman in this chapter doesn't really explain why my right to evict or my right to prevent you from using my hammer makes us free. Instead he talks about problems associated with government control as contrasted to private control. Ironically he uses media as an example. Now, keep in mind that Friedman wrote this around 1973. He says look at the diversity we see in print media vs the limited views that are present in broadcast media. You can find anything in print, but in broadcast media the FCC stops the offensive and otherwise holds back diversity.

So why shouldn't we just auction off the various broadcast frequencies to private enterprise? Would we expect then that these frequencies would become the domain of only the rich, which they would use for propagandistic purposes? No. Too costly.

What we've seen since Friedman wrote this is an extension of corporate power in media and reduction in public control. Broadcast media are now almost completely under the control of extremely rich people. And contrary to Friedman's claims about print media, the same is true in that domain. All major media are now under the control of just a few corporations. Much fewer than it was 40 years ago when Friedman wrote this. And what is the result? Our media today is absolutely dominated by the profit seeking interests of these companies and the information they share reflects that interest.

There was only one nation of peoples that literally feared Saddam Hussein in 2003. And that nation is probably the most secure nation in the world, with a military budget that was about equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Hussein on the other hand had been wiped out by the Iran/Iraq war, then the Persian Gulf War, and finally a dozen years of some of the harshest sanctions ever imposed in modern times. He was one of the most feeble threats you could find. However the media, owned by such defense contractors as GE and Westinghouse, managed to drive the population into a state of fear that led to war. War that was extremely profitable for them. Fabricated evidence was passed of as genuine. Obvious questions were downplayed.

Of course this continues today. The media today push for war with Iran. In this case we're talking about a war that the government isn't really pushing for. The media seems to want it. Greenwald discusses this here, here, and here. Precisely what Friedman says would not happen has happened and is happening again before our eyes.

There's little here in Friedman's opening chapter by way of a defense that property rights enhance freedom. Perhaps it is explained in later parts of the book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always found the libertarian emphasis on private property to be arbitrary. How is that different from a right to education? They're both social rights we claim to have and feel society cannot function well without.

Friedman ignores (I've only read the first chapter so far) the level of coercion necessary to maintain private property, instead arguing that it is the height of freedom.