Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reading the Classics: Capitalism and Freedom (Part I)

In trying to teach myself about the history of economics, I have often gone to the source texts in an attempt to get a sense of the history of economic thought (something that from reading the blogs these past five years seems to show is missing; Krugman quoted Thoma recently saying that there are no new ideas in economics, just old books).  

It has been a slog at times. I read Keynes’ “General Theory” as one of the first books in the project and had to skip the equations and luxuriate in his explanatory prose. I should return to that text someday just to see my marginalia.  I read “The Road to Serfdom” on a succession of un-air-conditioned nights one summer, and felt he was making a critical error in categorizing German Fascism and Soviet Communism as being of a kind. Many people who visited the page on Amazon where I posted that critique disagreed. It didn’t help that I posted it two days before Glen Beck devoted an entire episode to the book and its greatness, making mine the most recent critical review. I was able to get into a fruitless exchange below the review in the comments section until I decided to stop. Then the trolls stopped. I have to say that Hayek did teach me one thing: Don’t feed the trolls.   

I have to admit that I started and abandoned Wealth of Nations about a third of a way in, and Schumpeter at an equally early point. I have every intention of going back, but my “to read” shelf is thick and my time on this planet finite.

It is in that vein that I started reading Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” last night. I am not sympathetic to the man – from watching interviews of him he is an arrogant prick assured of his own correctnessness. I am not sympathetic to his arguments or the political legacy of his arguments. I am much more left-wing than he was. I am, however, desirous to read what was a popular book aimed at non-economists.

The layout of the book is such – the edition of the book I have is the third edition, and there are prefaces to go with each edition, counting back. So there’s a 2002, 1982, and 1962 preface at the front of the book. What interests me is the tone on each of the sections. In 2002, Friedman is a little triumphant because the US has made much progress towards a more “free” society through Reagan and Bushes. In 1982 he is hopeful about the future. In 1962 he sounds cynical, because the welfare state has taken away his freedom (I hope ‘62 Miltie was prepared for Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act).

Introduction, first pages of chapter 1:
What got me as I was reading was that there was no positive definition of “Freedom”. There is no sentence, that I saw, that started “Freedom is…”. Friedman splits freedom down to economic and political freedom, saying that they often go hand-in-hand, cheering the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy.
But then there’s this: he starts the book by trying to deconstruct Kennedy’s “Ask not” quote. He poo-poos the idea of a hierarchy between people and the state, no matter who you put on top.  

This will take a while, thankfully the book is only about 200 pages.