Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “A most illiberal sentiment”

by Don Boudreaux on December 3, 2019

in Archived writings, Philosophy of Freedom

My Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of November 28th, 2006, was written in honor of Milton Friedman, who died earlier that month. It’s titled “A most illiberal sentiment” and appears beneath the fold. (For some reason, this column is not available on-line.)

A most illiberal sentiment

In a wonderful tribute to the late Milton Friedman, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers wrote in The New York Times of growing up “in a family of progressive economists, and Milton Friedman was a devil figure. But over time, as I studied economics myself and as the world evolved, I came to have grudging respect and then great admiration for him and for his ideas. No contemporary economist anywhere on the political spectrum combined Mr. Friedman’s commitment to clarity of thought and argument, to scientifically examining evidence and to identifying policies that will make societies function better.”

Very true. During the 20th century, only F.A. Hayek rivals Milton Friedman in giving life, legitimacy and influence to the ideas of freedom. Friedman will be sorely missed — especially so because, as David Brooks says in the same edition of The Times: “Classical economics is under its greatest threat in a generation. Growing evidence suggests average workers are not seeing the benefits of their productivity gains — that the market is broken and requires heavy government correction. Friedman’s heirs have been avoiding this debate. They’re losing it badly and have offered no concrete remedies to address this problem, if it is one.”

Friedman’s heirs (among whom I count myself) aren’t completely avoiding this debate. Books such as “Myths of Rich & Poor” by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, newspaper opinion pieces, and countless blog posts — including many on my and Russ Roberts’ blog, Cafe Hayek — address this issue in several ways. But I concede that we must redouble our efforts because the left harps incessantly on allegedly growing income inequality.

Contrary to the left’s frequent claims, much ambiguity infects data on wages and household earnings. This ambiguity means that these data can be processed and interpreted in many ways, some of which indicate growing economic inequality and others of which do not.

But let’s grant here that income inequality is growing. Let’s assume that recent gains in wealth for rich Americans are larger than are recent gains in wealth for middle-class and poor Americans. Should this trend be corrected by government? I believe not. In fact, I believe that leftists’ and “progressives’” obsession with income inequality is in deep conflict with their liberal attitudes (which I share) on many other matters, such as homosexuality.

This inconsistency struck me as I watched a popular YouTube video of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat) in his gay fashonista character Bruno. In this video Bruno interviews unsuspecting “gay converter” Pastor Quinn. When Bruno asks the pastor why homosexuality is wrong — “So why is being gay so out this season?” — Pastor Quinn responds: “because there are people who find homosexuality to be repugnant to them.”

Bad reason. Undoubtedly many people do find homosexuality to be repugnant, but why should we care?

Civilized people understand that what consenting adults do with each other is no one else’s business. The fact that some people find other people’s peaceable activities to be repugnant, unpleasant, odd, or whatever, is irrelevant — or should be irrelevant. Jones’s attitude about Smith’s peaceful actions is no justification for public policy aimed at saving Jones from whatever disquiet he or she suffers as a result of Smith’s activities.

Now I don’t know what Pastor Quinn really does. If he simply offers his services to those who come to him voluntarily, I have no complaint (although I do find it to be a bit repugnant).

Most self-described “liberals” and “progressives” would agree with what I write above. So why do they believe that income inequality is worthy of the states attention? No doubt, they find income inequality repugnant. They don’t like it and they want to do all that they can to rid society of it — just as Pastor Quinn doesn’t like homosexuality and wants to do all that he can to rid society of it.

One reason for their concern with income inequality might be that some of these “liberals” and “progressives” believe that wealth is a fixed stock; the more that Bill Gates has the less that persons living in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward have. Whether or not this is true is a factual question. But economics and history teach that this fixed-stock-of-wealth view is dead wrong.

My sense is that most of the antagonism toward income inequality does not rest on the fixed-stock-of-wealth view. My sense is that most of this antagonism is just like the antagonism that Pastor Quinn and his flock have toward homosexuality: they find it repugnant and, therefore, conclude that their own sentiments are sufficient reason to try to “solve” the alleged “problem.”

It’s a most illiberal sentiment, one that Milton Friedman found repugnant


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