Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.”     Lord Acton

April 13, 2012

Milton Friedman on Libertarianism and Humility

by Stephen Littau

On August 14, 1990, Milton Friedman gave a speech at the International Society for Individual Liberty’s 5th World Libertarian Conference on the subject of libertarianism and humility. There are many adjectives which can be ascribed to libertarians but “humble” usually isn’t one of them. Among the quotable parts of the speech, Friedman said the following:

On the one hand, I regard the basic human value that underlies my own beliefs as tolerance based on humility. I have no right to coerce someone else because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong. On the other hand, some of our heros…people who have, in fact, done the most to promote libertarian ideas, who have been enormously influential, have been highly intolerant as human beings and have justified their views, with which I largely agree, in ways that I regard as promoting intolerance.

In searching for the above transcription of what I thought was very profound and wise, I found a couple of bloggers who thought this particular quotation as “an inadequate defense of liberty” or one of the “failures” of Milton Friedman.

I happen to disagree with these notions.

Maybe because I have been humbled in realizing that I had been wrong on some issues of great importance. By far the most difficult (yet ultimately liberating) post I have ever written was the post in which I declared that I was wrong about my support for the war in Iraq. I was so certain that regime change in Iraq would bring about peace in the Middle East and freedom would take hold. I thought the Ron Paul and big “L” Libertarian position on preemptive war was naïve and dangerous but now I believe the opposite to be true (for reasons I stated in the aforementioned post).

Having experiencing this, I can’t help but think that Friedman was right to say that each of us should be open to the possibility we may be wrong. If we aren’t open to this possibility, what is the point of debating an issue? Obviously, if I argue that X is correct and my opponent says Y is correct, I’m going to do my best to convince my opponent that I am right and s/he is wrong (meanwhile, my opponent is doing the same).

But what if I realize in the course of the debate that my opponent is at least partially right about Y being correct and/or that my reasoning is flawed or the facts do not support X? As a normal human being, I might not concede right away but if I am being intellectually honest, I’ll revise my thinking based on new information or new reasoning I hadn’t considered.

If Milton Friedman was willing to be open to the possibility of being wrong, how could I, someone whose mind will never in the same league as his, be so stubborn?

One thing I notice in watching Friedman debate people who are diametrically opposed to his positions was how patient he was with them. Something that many of us libertarians seem to forget is that much of what we believe to be true is counterintuitive to at least half of the people we encounter on a daily basis because many of these people have not been exposed to our philosophy. Friedman understood this. He knew that much of what he was saying was new territory for many who would hear his lectures or read his books.

Before he could make the case about any of his ideas to others, he had to be satisfied that the facts backed up his theory. These two sentences from the NPR obituary for Friedman summed up his approach beautifully:

Friedman was an empiricist, whose theories emerged from his study of the evidence, not the other way around. He also was a champion of the free market and small government.

We are supposed to believe this to be a weakness? I find this to be so refreshing!

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t see how humility and tolerance are interconnected. A proud, arrogant person can be tolerant of others. A humble person can be bigoted and intolerant.

    What Milton Friedman and you (Steve Littau) described was not humility but the recognition that you are not omniscient. Awareness that one can be wrong or ignorant about many topics may help one to be tolerant, but it doesn’t guarantee it. I know people who readily admit they don’t know everything and aren’t always right but are intolerant of homosexuals, atheists, recreational drug users, or other groups or categories of people.

    Comment by DoctorT — April 14, 2012 @ 4:44 pm
  2. Easy enough to say “I could be wrong” as a reason for non-coercion. However, far too many statists are incapable of believing that they themselves could be wrong, which they then use to justify coercion.

    It’s been my sad experience to have met someone, a public school teacher in fact, who was convinced that “something must be done, this is something, so this must be done.” And that “something” was not presented as a moral or ethical imperative, but was to have been “imprisoned for life for first degree murder” verdict against another human being.

    Humility, as Friedman presents it, seems as rare in humanity as any other virtue.

    Comment by Bob Robertson — April 19, 2012 @ 8:54 am

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