In the Spring edition of AL Magazine, Mitch Thompson calls upon Austro-libertarians to pursue a more systematic and decisive mode of social and political dissent. His article, “In Pursuit of a More Radical and Consistent Dissent,” emphasizes the barriers that limit, and even preclude, opposition in society today. Thompson’s call for a more effective mode of dissent recalls a thought experiment put forward by Milton Friedman in his 1961 article “Capitalism and Freedom” in the New Individualist Review. In that article, Friedman asks how a socialist society would preserve the individual’s freedom to advocate capitalism – or, to frame the question another way, how a socialist society would protect the right to oppose socialism itself. In light of growing calls for socialism in today’s public discourse, Friedman’s question is both relevant and worth recalling.
Friedman asserts in his article that economic freedom is a necessary – though not a sufficient – condition for political freedom. (That economic freedom is not a sufficient condition is illustrated by the likes of Fascist Spain, Fascist Italy, and Czarist Russia (prior to World War I), which were largely characterized by private economic enterprise but were not politically free.) Friedman posits that, through voluntary market exchange and productive enterprise, economic power is more easily dispersed among people than political power. Further, such widely dispersed economic power can check the political power that tends to concentrate in the hands of a few. As such, free markets help to preserve political freedom.
To illustrate this point, Friedman begins by assuming (non-controversially, we may hope) that a primary element of political freedom is the freedom to advocate for alternative social, economic, and political arrangements – in other words, the freedom to dissent. Indeed, a hallmark of our free, capitalist society is the freedom to persuade others to voluntarily support programs that they may disagree with, even socialist programs. This is a freedom that Bernie Sanders and other Democratic presidential candidates, for example, are happy to make use of today. Could the socialist society likewise protect the freedom of an individual dissenter (let alone a candidate for high office) to promote a capitalist reorganization of society? Free markets and voluntary exchange among consenting individuals? For purposes of our thought experiment, Friedman asks us to assume that the public and its leadership seriously desire to enable such freedom. How would such a society arrange its institutions to make this freedom possible?
The first problem that Friedman identifies is the dissenter’s need to earn a living. In a true socialist state, the state is also the employer. The dissenter is therefore a government employee (or, if not employed, a beneficiary or dependent), and relies on the state for his livelihood. It is one thing for a private citizen to criticize his state, but quite another for the state employee to actively undermine or subvert his employer through calls for radical change. Friedman reminds us of those targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committees and the McCarthy investigations. The socialist state would therefore need to enact a self-denying ordinance that would not discharge state employees who advocate subversive doctrines like capitalism (which would advocate the end of socialism and thus the socialist state).
The next hurdle, Friedman notes, is the need for capital to finance dissenting speech, such as meetings, propaganda, publications, and other advocacy platforms. In a capitalist society, such resources are widely disbursed among small and large donors, and we can assume that a socialist society would not be very different in this regard. However, in a socialist society, Friedman posits that the wealthiest are likely to be those in positions of high government authority, a sound assumption given that the wealthiest zip codes in the US today routinely surround our nation’s capital. It is highly unlikely that the largest potential donors in a socialist state would finance (or even permit) dissent that undermines the status quo. The dissenter would thus need to rely upon smaller donors (read: minor civil servants) for such capital. However, in this day of IRS abuse, domestic surveillance, and retaliatory government, the small donor may be loath to risk her resources and livelihood to promote dissenting speech. Regardless, Friedman notes that there is a more fundamental question (and problem) to address, namely, how does the dissenter go about persuading potential donors and capital supporters to begin with?
Capitalism functions in accordance with supply and demand; if there is a high demand for compelling or even obscure ideas, then suppliers will provide such ideas at market prices. In a capitalist society, the dissenting idea doesn’t even need to be right in order for it to reach a wide audience – the dissenter just needs to convince a capitalist (any capitalist) that it will sell. Indeed, witness the recent proliferation of socialist advocacy products in the marketplace, which, ironically, denounce the same market functions that make their publication and distribution possible. In such a market, ideas may be freely traded. But how would such supply be possible in a socialist state? As noted above, it may be difficult in a socialist state to obtain voluntary capital contributions from large and small donors. If our hypothetical socialist public demands access to dissenting ideas, then perhaps the government establishes a public fund for subversive speech. But if subversive speech becomes profitable, then entrepreneurs will supply it and the government would need to ration such funds. Putting aside the unlikelihood of such a government agreeing to fund subversive enterprises (history belies such a dream), how would the state ration such funds? How would it determine what speech is profitable without a market? To whom would it direct such funds (I suspect our abovementioned “large donors” would be good candidates)? How would the government address rifts among the public over the resultant (publicly-funded) activities?
Friedman notes that, even if we solved this problem, how would the dissenter communicate her speech in the absence of private property rights? In addition to capital, the dissenter must be free to acquire paper or technology (on which to print or disclose her speech), distribution channels (through which to physically deliver her speech), real property rights (on which to hold meetings), and other rights that are attendant to communication today. In a free marketplace, she can freely arrange with private publishers, distributors, and others to disseminate her speech. Such third-party vendors do not care (or often even know) what she is publishing as long as she pays for the goods or services. By contrast, the dissenter in a socialist society must rely upon the state, directly or indirectly, to obtain the property rights necessary for communication. Indeed, if today’s standards are any guide, our beleaguered dissenter might need myriad licenses and other conditional clearances to even request or use such implements. And in each instance, she is likely to confront separate state agencies and personnel, any one of which may have reasons (or no reason at all) for rejecting her request. Lois Lerner and the Obama IRS suggest how such a regime may operate in practice.
These are among the most basic issues that a socialist state must address with respect to the genuine promotion of free speech and enterprise, and their resolution is hard to envision. Examples are difficult to find. Further, even if such issues could be resolved in practice, we must constantly keep in mind that governments, or at least those controlling the government, always change. A powerful government may attract those who presume to control it, but it will surely repulse them when the opposition succeeds to the throne. When the opposition succeeds (and it will), how much authority over speech and its related rights will you be comfortable placing in its hands?
There are many in the public square today protesting and advocating for social, economic, and political change. They are free to do so, in large part, because of the free market and the wide dispersal of power that it enables. Some of these dissenters advocate a socialist society. One wonders how they envision their society addressing the issues that Milton Friedman raised so many years ago.
Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom,” New Individualist Review I, no. 1 (April 1961).