Milton Friedman: The Intellectuals and Collectivism

Below is a part of an interview the economist Milton Friedman gave to Business and Society Review in 1972. As socialism enjoys a new bout of popularity among so-called intellectuals, Friedman’s thoughts on this subject are as timely as ever.

McClaughry: Would you say that the movement toward collectivism has been largely among intellectuals?

Friedman: Yes I would, and this is a real puzzle. In some ways you’d think it would be the other way around. Intellectuals, of all people, ought to value freedom of speech, freedom of thought. In fact they do value them in intellectual areas for themselves. But their attitude in general is that they want freedom for themselves, but control over everybody else.

The second reason you would think intellectuals would be different is that the argument for collectivism is really simple-minded. It says that if there is an evil it is because a bad man did it, and the way to correct it is to put a good man in power. On the other hand, the argument made for individualism is very subtle and sophisticated. It claims that if you let individuals pursue their own self-interests, they will be led by an invisible hand to pursue the social interest more effectively than if they are organized to pursue it directly.

Intellectuals in general tend to mouth all kinds of slogans about social responsibility, about the vicious capitalists who are grinding the poor under their heels, deliberately polluting the streams, and so on. This is especially true of mass media—newspaper writers and reporters, magazines, TV, and radio. There are some exceptions, but I think that the people who write, talk, and produce for those agencies are overwhelmingly collectivists in their thinking—modern liberals, if you want—in favor of more power for government.

It really makes you think. If you ask any of these people what they think about current government programs, they will agree that they are terrible. Everything the government has done is terrible. What is the answer to the problem? More government. Take public housing. It has failed—so we ought to have more and bigger public housing. The welfare program has done a great deal of harm. What ought we do? We ought to have more and bigger welfare programs. I heard Mayor Hatcher of Gary, Indiana on TV. He was talking about unemployment. He didn’t mention that some of that unemployment in Gary might be attributable to the high wages the steel union had negotiated. No, not a word about that. What was his answer? He was going to Washington to get more federal money.

McClaughry: Why do you think these attitudes are so popular among intellectuals?

Friedman: Schumpeter gave one answer. He said that a free enterprise society, by its success, creates a large number of intellectuals who, by their nature, feel they don’t have the power they are entitled to. They become frustrated and repressed, and thus dissatisfied with the existing system. I think there is a good deal of truth to that. But, of course, that doesn’t argue that intellectuals are collectivists. It only argues that they would be against the status quo; that they would be free enterprisers in a collectivist world and collectivists in a free enterprise world.

However, that’s hard to observe because the potential free enterprisers in a collectivist world wouldn’t be permitted to talk. The only place we’d hear the intellectuals speaking freely would be in a free enterprise society. I haven’t seen any public announcement of the formation of a Russians for Capitalist Action. You don’t have a capitalist party in the Soviet Union, but there is a Communist Party here.

If you ask why so many intellectuals are collectivists, I think the fundamental reason is very different. I think it’s in their own self-interest, in a double way. First, in a collectivist society, intellectuals have more power than they do in a free enterprise system. In the 1930s, the New Deal created an enormous number of jobs that didn’t exist before for intellectuals. I had one myself, so I am speaking from personal experience. There has been a “drang nach Washington” since the New Deal which intellectuals everywhere recognize as having improved their personal status. Second, it is much easier to sell simple-minded, collectivist ideas than it is to sell sophisticated, free enterprise ideas. Take our topic—social responsibility. Why does this nonsense fill the air? Because it is simple-minded and easy to sell. Because listeners don’t have to go through a complicated thinking process.

Trying to sell people on the idea that although there are things that are wrong, if you try to make them better, you’ll make them worse, is a lot harder than selling them the idea that the way to solve a problem is to elect a good man and have the government do something. Consequently, there is a better market for collectivist intellectualism than there is for free enterprise individualism.

Now, you’ll say to me, doesn’t that cut both ways? Why am I a free enterpriser then? Oughtn’t I be in that market? Well, it’s not quite so easy to say. There is a much bigger market for Fords than there is for Checker Marathons. There is a much bigger market for collectivist intellectuals than there is for free enterprise intellectuals, but there is some market for free enterprise intellectuals. In fact, my impression is that there is a larger demand for free enterprise intellectuals than there is a supply. Although there is only one quarter of the demand for free enterprise intellectuals, I think there is only one-tenth of the supply. That is the real puzzle.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.