Americans have increasingly come to view government as a vital protector against economic hardship. U.S. politicians, especially from 1900 on, have touted various interventionist economic programs as essential for America’s prosperity and security. Free-market economist Milton Friedman, on the other hand, understood that the best protection for American workers and consumers springs not from government intervention, but from economic freedom. It is this freedom to choose that guards us from exploitation and opens innumerable doors of opportunity.
Friedman describes in his book Free to Choose how economic freedom aids consumers. In a competitive market, businesses have strong incentives to produce goods that consumers need and demand. The freedom of new entrepreneurs to grab a share of the population’s demands ensures that the vast majority of consumer needs are met. Also, price spikes are mitigated by the competition: even if all existing stores agree to keep prices artificially high through collusion, new vendors can enter the marketplace and thwart their efforts. Consumers cannot be forced to buy particular products, and thus will voluntarily contribute to the expansion of high-quality vendors while abandoning companies that provide poor service. According to Friedman, it is free competition, not government regulation, that protects consumers from exploitation and shortages of essential goods.
In his works, Friedman also points out the benefit workers gain from economic freedom: the crucial ability to earn wages that reflect the value of their skills. In an open market, companies will compete strategically for the most productive workers, driving wages up and rewarding good work. The free market also allows workers to become entrepreneurs and manage their own time and resources. Free markets ultimately protect workers from poor conditions by providing them with the freedom to choose a job according to their own desires and abilities. By contrast, a legally enforced monopoly system hurts workers, as they can only seek work from an employer with little incentive to offer competitive wages or pleasant working environments.
Similarly, Friedman argued that the freedom to choose among schools can help protect American children against a poor education. The more options parents have regarding schooling, the more schools will be held accountable for the teaching they provide. The worst situation for any student is to have only one compulsory schooling option, as is true for many inner-city children. Without any alternative, they have nowhere to turn if their assigned school fails to provide a good service. Friedman and his wife Rose were tireless advocates for increased school choice, knowing that increased freedom for families could provide an escape route for children in poor schools.
Dr. Friedman deeply understood the importance of freedom in our society. America’s key to prosperity and long-term economic security is the liberty that enables her citizens to apply their skills and talents without arbitrary government interference. Anytime a citizen is left with only one vendor to buy from, one employer to work for or one school to attend, that citizen becomes vulnerable. Our greatest protection against both corporate and government exploitation lies in our freedom to choose.
Inspired by Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose: A Personal Statement.