Many of the texts we’ve read in this class make a clear distinction between “good economics” and “bad economics.” On both sides of the political spectrum, they also seem to suggest that the people practicing “bad economics,” either by negligence or greedy self-interest, are a threat to the economy’s well being and a road block of progress, and therefore should be seen as a sort of enemy. Milton and Rose Friedman are no exception, but rather than appealing to an already solid partisan reader base, they keep their distinctions vague at first, employ emotionally-charged nationalistic language, and resist from excessively condemning any particular group or philosophy in order to prevent alienating any readers they have a chance of compelling.
First, they establish a narrative of America as a land of hope and opportunity for immigrants “seeking adventure, fleeing from tyranny, or simply trying to make a better life for themselves” (1); one that evokes nationalist pride rather than fear, as other free-market enthusiasts such as Hayek have employed. He then draws connections between the nation’s founding principles with those of Adam Smith, and describes a 19th century market “Golden Age.” It’s fantasy that plays on the images and histories that evoke pride for many Americans, meanwhile disavowing the ugly parts (slavery, Indian extermination, exploitation, etc.). And while they do give a nod to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and employ some of the scare tactics of the economy being ruined by big government, the positive pathos seems to drown out the negative. This move is indicative of period when communist paranoia was not nearly as prevalent as it was during the forties when Hazlitt and Hayek published their books, and must have evolved in order to appeal to a wide audience. Rather than risk alienating those who may not be adamantly against government intervention, it instead appeals to an identity that is somewhat universally “American.”
In a similar move, they use the pride established in the introduction to set up an outside threat with the potential to destroy erode the things that make the country great. But the enemy’s construction is not an obvious, menacing figure, but those with good intentions that have detrimental consequences. The effect here seems to not only create a sense of suspicion for good-intentioned acts, but also offers room for readers who may have supported the ‘bad’ principles outlined by Friedman simply because they were well-intentioned. The lack of aggression coupled with the pleasant nationalistic imagery lulls rather than puts people on guard, and the act of persuasion feels less like someone is trying to shake you by the collar to see the point.
But the Friedmans do subtly play on the still prevalent fears of communism, using extreme examples to demonstrate the failures of good intentioned acts of government intervention. The first example they use in the first chapter is one of communist Russia, where government controls all forms of economic life, constricting options and inhibiting productivity. This immediately creates a pole between two opposite extremes: one of a completely free-market economy and one of a total command economy. Once this pole is established, it allows them to use the example of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia as if it were a direct result of people trying to control the free market [“Recent experience in Cambodia tragically illustrates the cost of trying to do without the market entirely” (10)]. And while they do acknowledge that certain forms government intervention are necessary in society, they do very little to describe which forms. It’s a move that anticipates objection for the sake of being able to say they did so, but does little to offer any substantial middle ground between the two extremes described by Friedman, thus placing their readers in a position to choose between one or the other.
These moves are ultimately most effective for middle class readers who make a comfortable living and don’t directly rely on many public services. It’s a lot easier to have the view that the outcomes of capitalism are fair when you come out on top. But these are moves that also steer away from the perception of economics as a cold and calculative science with no sympathy for those who don’t benefit. The argument assumes that its readers are sympathetic to efforts that genuinely try to improve public life, but aims to morph that sympathy into suspicion.