NEWSFLASH: Being a socialist is always a bad idea. But it’s an especially bad idea when a) you have no idea what you’re talking about, and b) you choose to debate libertarian thought leader Milton Friedman.
Some things never change. In a series of public lectures, the free market intellectual often butted heads with anti-capitalist factions that often inhabit college campuses.
Listen to Milton Friedman shut down a young socialist in this exchange from the 1980s. Even if you’ve seen this clip before, it’s well worth a second viewing.
I believe many people in America would believe in a different kind of freedom,” the young student begins. “And that is freedom to well-being.”
“A certain standard for housing at a fair price, education, etc. The other thing I want to say is that the system has built into it that the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich. That is an externality in the system.”
Friedman was quick to shut down the student’s faulty premise. “It is not built into the system at all,” he says.
To make his case, Friedman invoked the oil idiom “three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” which reflected exactly the opposite effect. Throughout most of American history, it turns out great fortunes are usually lost within a few generations. The combination of taxes, technological change, and conspicuous consumption tends to keep the gap between rich and poor muted over time.
“It is not built into the system. On the contrary; there is a great deal of mobility within generations and between generations. We shouldn’t argue on the basis of false factual premises.”
Undeterred, the student continues his questioning. “Is it possible to build a system based on equality,” he asks, “that would not sacrifice liberty?”
Friedman first confesses that he will not be able to give a full answer to such a complex question in such short period of time. But after apologizing for being a little dogmatic, he makes clear his answer is based on a great deal of thought and analysis.
“In my opinion, a society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. A society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but it will end up with a closer approach to equality than any other kind of system that has ever been developed.”
“You can only aim at equality by giving some people the right to take things from others. And what ultimately happens when you aim for equality is that A and B decide what C should do for D, except that they take a bit of commission off on the way.”