Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not free to speak: comments on Ch. 1 of Free to Choose

I had laryngitis earlier this week so I wasn't able to talk in class to share the following comments. Here are a couple of things I have observed.

Someone mentioned that the word "voluntary" came up over and over again. Similarly, the word "Information" appears frequently, thought not nearly as often as "voluntary". I was struck by its presence because it is seems to function as a figure. The first time it is introduced is in the very beginning of Ch. 1. "The general cannot conceivably have the information necessary to direct every movement of the lowliest private" (1). When I try to define information it gets difficult, I suppose it means things to be known, or facts, or components of a decision. I like the last one. Decisions are made from information, information allows us to make choices.

The figure appears again when Friedman explains the three functions of prices. The first, he says is the "Transmission of Information". He goes on to explain that prices allow people to make decisions related to their businesses. This is all well and good but my problem with his use of the word surfaces when I consider that he does not address the relation of the worker to the equation. When he first introduces the figure he states that: "At every step of the chain of command, the soldier, whether and officer or a private, must have the discretion to take into account information about specific circumstances that his commanding officer could not have" (1). By analogy to the system of production, this implies a certain degree of autonomy even at the lowest level of production. This however, totally disregards the reality of life. Workers often don't get to choose what job they want. They don't get to consider the "information" to have them make their choice. If prices are supposed to be "information" that contributes to decisions, then how can we expect them to contribute to decisions at all if many people can't even consider the information.

He is however careful to qualify his claim and say that "Prices not only transmit information from the ultimate buyers to retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and owners of resources..." (8). He does not include the workers. Yet, given his introduction and context for the importance of "information", the lowest level of production, the workers are included. With this move he avoids my objection that there are inherent inequalities in life, that workers for whatever (sometimes racist, sexist or homophobic) reason often don't have the liberty to act according to "information".


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