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Saturday, April 17, 2021 Leer en Español

4 Characteristics That Made Milton Friedman an Effective Advocate for Liberty

You might never know the impact you make, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make one.

Image Credit: PBS

Executive orders! Mask Mandates! COVID Lockdowns! Will we lose our country? In a few years, will we even recognize our country? Many people are worried that the Left is on the move and that they are taking over.

What can we do?

It is that last question that I get asked most often and, honestly, I am asking it myself quite often too. What can we do? Sometimes I find putting a larger problem in the context of a smaller situation, I can find a little clarity.

In my town, a neighbor decided that because she likes trees, she was going to do something about it. Her strategy was to start a petition, gather signatures, and then present it to the Town Council. A couple of weeks ago, she posted her petition on social media, where in just a few days, it got close to 200 signatures. This attracted the attention of one of the Town Council Members, who is now championing the cause.

So, what was the issue? In my town, when a developer clears land to build on it, there is an ordinance that says 10% of the trees must remain. In nearby towns, their ordinances say 30%. Thus, the cries went out, “Why should we be less green than our neighbors? Don’t we all deserve to live in nice towns too?”

Of course, I have significant problems with this proposal. Most troublesome is the violation of someone’s private property rights. In a true free market, what should happen if a person wants to preserve trees? The answer is simple, let that person buy the property and preserve the trees. Obviously this approach can get fairly expensive for one person. A close alternative is to form a (non-profit) group, pool some money, and have the group buy the property. (Or maybe the group could just buy the rights to the trees. In other words, the group could negotiate with the owner a fee for preserving the trees. Ducks Unlimited does this with farmers to preserve duck habitats.) Regardless of the specific details, the point is that the owner has control over the property. “Getting to decide” is what ownership means. The petition that my neighbor was putting forth takes a (larger) portion of control away from the owner and transfers it to the government. By reducing what the owner can do with the property, the value of the property falls. This activity is a “takings,” a theft by the government, or what Frederic Bastiat would call “legal plunder.”

Now let’s apply our question to this situation: “What can we do?”

I suppose that I could physically attack her, verbally confront her, or get on social media and call her out, but these are terrible options and the least prudent courses of action. Violence simply turns people away from your cause. Becoming her adversary is a long-term losing approach. And most importantly, does name calling ever change anyone’s mind? No, none of these approaches will work. Additionally, I want my neighbors to like me, and I want to like them. I want to get along with everyone. The problem is that I have to persuade not just my neighbor, but a lot of people.

I have to somehow get them to change their minds. What can I do?

In order to persuade someone, you must first find out why they disagree with you. There are many possibilities. Does this other person have a different worldview because they simply have been looking at the wrong numbers? If the numbers are not the basis for their conclusion, then all the numbers in the world aren’t likely to change one’s mind.

Is their world view based on a flawed theory, like Keynesianism or the Marxist Labor Theory of Value? If you can find this out, then you can reason together and find a solution.

More often than not, it is not a simple question of finding the right data or correcting an element of flawed logic. People rarely behave that way. When I read the arguments presented in social media, they usually center on data or theory. “Look at my numbers!” “Your theory is flawed because it lacks…” How often have you had a firmly committed point of view changed by a number or logical argument? Usually when presented with data or theory that we disagree with, we look for numbers and theories that back our conclusions. Changing a deeply held conclusion is not easy to do. I can say from experience that when I changed my mind about legalizing drugs it took years of arguments, lots of data, and a predisposition toward libertarianism to do it. My point is that this is not an easy task that can be done by a couple of tweets.

I find that in discussing political economy topics with my neighbors, they often arrive at their conclusions from one of three places: an emotional position, a moral standpoint, or nothing at all—a type of indifference. Quite often it is a mix of all three. A paraphrased typical reaction might be, “I kind of feel that this is right because it seems fair, but I don’t want to think too deeply on this.” The result of this mindset leads to my neighbor very quickly gathering 200 signatures to save some anonymous and theoretical trees. What is the cost to signing the petition? It only takes a few moments. While the benefit is that the signer feels better for being on the right side of a good cause. Who can be against saving trees?

What we have here is a microcosm of the national issues. In order to fix the larger problems that we see nationally, we need to start locally. The key is to start. Don’t just grumble about it to no one. Standing silently on the sidelines isn’t helping. Changing the society for the better requires action on our part. So we need to speak up.

But how?

Recently, I have been watching Milton Friedman’s 1980 television series “Free to Choose.” (I have to admit that I have never watched more than just clips before.) And while I might not agree with his Monetarism, I can absolutely say that he was a masterful debater and expositor for free markets. What made Milton Friedman so good? I believe that there are four key points to what made him so effective.

1. Friedman knew his stuff

Granted, it helps being super smart and having the ability to recall facts and figures as easily as breathing. Nevertheless, we can all improve our understanding. The founder of FEE, Leonard Read, had something to say about knowledge. During one talk, Read had the lights turned off. He then turned on an electric candle on the lowest setting. We are all candles. When we start out, we are on the dimmest setting. As we gain knowledge, our brightness increases. It attracts the eye. People begin to notice. We all have the potential to increase our brightness and become lights to the world.

2. Friedman always had a smile on his face

The golden rule, treat people as you would like to be treated, can make or break your argument. In other words, how you make your point is usually more persuasive than the content of your point. How would you react to someone screaming in your face? Being pleasant and treating people as your friends and neighbors wins people over.

3. Friedman asked people to think about the larger picture

Thinking about a problem in a larger context is the point of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Hazlitt’s lesson is that we always need to consider both the intended and the unintended consequences of an action. The direct and immediate effects on an individual or a small group are important. However, we must also consider the indirect and the long-run effects on all groups. By leaving out this larger perspective, we are only considering half-truths.

4. Friedman always LISTENED to the other side

This might be the most difficult skill to master. When the other person is talking, are we hearing what they are saying or are we just waiting for our turn to make our next point? By listening to the concerns of whom we are talking to, we can establish empathy. We can demonstrate how we, too, share a common goal or concern. By finding that commonality, we can create a bridge and a connection, which can bring us together and not drive us apart.

Let’s turn back to my local problem. Using the above techniques, what is a good strategy here? By listening, I can understand that my neighbor cares about the environment. I care too. I also don’t think that my neighbor wants to hurt the value of another’s property. Our goals are the same, it is our approaches that are different. By building a connection, providing a positive alternative, which avoids the negative impact of an effective government takings, we can reason together. Additionally, by listening, I might discover a value that might appeal to my leftwing neighbor, for example, in this case it might be the issue of affordable housing. By using skill #3, looking at the larger picture, I could point out that increasing costs to developers leads to higher housing prices, which is against affordable housing. Once a connection is made, we can consider some other points like fairness. For example, “Is it fair to be taking, without compensation, the use and value of that property?”

Finally, we need a substitute to redirect their impulse for trees. Saying “do nothing” tends not to be appealing, at least not emotionally. So we need to redirect and channel that energy into an alternative outcome that promotes the same end, more trees. This step is, of course, the most difficult. Free market answers for problems are rarely simple. Often, they involve thinking through several steps. Thomas Sowell calls it “thinking beyond stage one.”

Over the years, I have debated many people. Some debates have turned out for the better and some for the worse. (You can’t win them all.) It requires patience and good cheer. And over time, like the water wearing away the rock, you too will find that you are making a dent in the immovable edifice that stands before you.

How does this change the big picture? Realistically, we have to admit it might not change anything. However, we can know for certain that nothing will change if we don’t at least try. By starting locally, we have more influence. Have you been to a town council meeting? These meetings are usually mostly empty, even before COVID, and your voice will have a much larger resonance when you speak.

Larry Reed also reminds us that courage is infectious. (See Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Heroes of Liberty from around the Globe) We need to set good examples. When people see others take a principled stand, they will be encouraged to join them.

Additionally, you may never know what long-term impact you have on others. Nevertheless, good, thoughtful arguments, when presented cheerfully, sink in. You might never know the impact you make, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make one.

I think our arguments are the right ones. I think people should be free. I think free markets are better at generating wealth for people, rich and poor, and I know free markets are more moral than their alternatives. If you and I work on this together, if we don’t lose heart, if we persist, I believe that eventually we can rekindle the light of freedom and change the direction of our communities and our nation.

  • Paul Cwik is the BB&T Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Mount Olive.