Well, he said some stuff relevant to work, productivity and pay. He tried, although without much success, to challenge us to think about the meaning of 'equality' in the context of work and pay. Something a bit more sophisticated than 'having the same amount of stuff' or 'paying everyone the same wage'. He asked two questions to try and bring some clarity to this debate: 1. 'what is the justification for state intervention to promote equality' and 2. 'what has been the effect of the measures actually taken?'
His starting point in approaching these questions is the principle of private property, which is where most of us are starting from today. If you start with communism or state ownership of everything then obviously you're going to ask different questions, run different arguments and end up with a different result.
If you start with private property, you don't end up with conditions where everyone has the same amount of stuff. Simple as that.
Can you introduce a bunch of laws to achieve equality while still retaining private property? Depends on what you mean by 'equality'.
True equality in this sense is more than looking simply at the amount of money or amount of stuff people have. It takes into account the preferences of different individuals and their ability to secure, through the market, what they value most. It also takes into account their appetite for risk-taking. Some people think taking risks is fun and others would pay a premium to avoid uncertainty. Not everyone values the same stuff: so we are not equal in having the same amount of stuff but we are equal in achieving what we set out to do and (hopefully) in keeping what we have lawfully acquired.
But what if my preference is to be a surgeon, or a movie star, or a premier league footballer, or something else quite prestigious and high earning? Sadly, I lack the talent to achieve any of these things, but if I still have a really strong preference to do this can we equalize things by paying me the same as a surgeon or movie/sporting star (or at least taxing them and redistributing the extra money to me), so that it's a bit more equal?
Let's leave aside the moral issue of whether people should be ok with accepting handouts, because that's a matter for everyone's private moral code, and take a situation where someone is poor for no fault of their own.
After all, it's not my fault if my dreams didn't work out - if it wasn't because of laziness or something for which I am morally culpable, but more due to things beyond my control (the wrong parents, the wrong school, the wrong teachers, the wrong housing estate, etc). Not everybody begins life with equal opportunities to achieve their dreams.
Isn't it surprising to see that Friedman was very much aware that life is not fair and that not everybody starts out with the same advantages. It's the same sort of surprise you get when you read Adam Smith and discover that actually, he was aware that markets are not perfectly free and competitive. Obviously the assumption of the critics is that damn, if only these people knew about all the unfairness in the world they would totally change their minds about capitalism. This reflects the 'if only they understood the true facts they would have to agree with me' approach to life, where the only explanation you can think of for why anybody would disagree with you is that they must be a bit thick.
Yeah, no. I think everybody over the age of 5 is very much aware that life is not fair and that not everybody is starting with the same advantages. The question is whether it follows that we should start redistributing everything and cut all the fiscally fat folk down to size.
Even if we only want to redistribute some things and not others, by what principle shall we decide which things to redistribute and which things to leave untouched? As Friedman asks, on what basis would you choose to treat self-made wealth differently from inherited wealth? After all, isn't 'self-made' wealth usually 'inherited' indirectly by people who went to the right schools, met the right people, grew up on the right side of the tracks, etc? How will you distinguish between the deserving and undeserving rich?
Consider also that every redistributive mechanism can be side-stepped by anyone with an averagely good lawyer (and these days all the hacks are available for free on google for anyone with an average amount of smarts). Now that inheritance is taxed, all the rich people are deciding not to leave an inheritance; there are more tax-efficient ways to funnel the money, for instance by buying up a small African principality or an island of your own somewhere in a remote sunny clime. You then end up with a situation where the state must encroach more and more on private citizens to stop them from evading/avoiding every redistributive effort the government can come up with. Chasing after equality is not only elusive, but it also comes at a cost to freedom.
This is why Friedman's book is called Capitalism and Freedom, not Capitalism and Wealth or Capitalism and How to be a Right Greedy Fecker. It's really a book about freedom.
There you have it: it's not a defence of capitalism because of how ethical and morally upstanding capitalism is. It's a defence of freedom.
It is very unfortunate that freedom leads to some people becoming very wealthy, because of course wealthy people are so infuriating, dripping diamonds everywhere and buying expensive bottles of wine while others are starving. Rich feckers should do everything within their power to sell all they have and give away all their money to charity, like Jesus said. It's for the redemption of their own mortal soul.
But to encroach upon everybody's freedom in a bid to get rid of the 1% of rich people is just cutting off your nose to spite your face - feeling happy to be a bit poorer as long as it means your neighbour is also a bit poorer, rather than face a situation where you are a bit wealthier but your neighbour is massively and intolerably wealthier than you. After all, wanting to be free is the first and most basic principle of being human, so becoming less free as a way of ensuring that other people will become less rich is not a worthwhile trade-off.
Within the framework of private law, where individuals are largely self-governing subject to the basic principles of the law of obligations (contract, property, and tort) the law has nothing to say about whether everyone should have the same amount of stuff or even the same amount of social standing or economic power.
This is the time of year when everybody resolves to be good, to be a better person than they were last year, and to generally be nice to everyone. Most people are good people, or at least they want to be thought of as good people who do what they can to help others out of the kindness of their own heart.
As Christmas approaches, 'tis the season to reflect on Mr Scrooge and his infamous modern-day successors. Many greedy capitalists have achieved notoriety in our time but as we enter the season of goodwill to all men our focus turns to other greedy capitalists who, like Mr Scrooge, turn themselves around and do the right thing in the end by giving lots of money to help the less fortunate.
It's official. The Economist reports that America is the country where people care the least about inequality. Many Americans care about inequality, sure, just not as high a proportion as, say, the number of people in Sweden or just about any other rich country where people care very much about inequality and have the high taxes to prove it.
The real meaning of poverty is not having enough money to allow you to participate in the social life of your community. These days poverty does not mean having no food to eat; it's more about having no money to keep up with the Joneses. The idea of social inclusion as a fundamental human right introduces a whole new meaning of Deprivation and Want.
Self-employed workers are arguably the hardest working folks out there. The UK House of Commons Select Committee Report on self-employment and the gig economy, published in April 2017 and chaired by Frank Field MP, begins by observing that ‘the self-employed are a large and growing part of the UK labour force’ constituting some 5 million workers amounting to 15% of the total labour force.
The terms 'poverty' and 'inequality' are often used interchangeably. As long as there are some people with lots of stuff, and other people who have less stuff, there will always be inequality. The only way to eradicate inequality is to ensure that everybody has exactly the same amount of stuff.
Why is it that all the people who write about freedom are capitalists? What do socialists have to say about freedom, if anything?
The best thing to do if you get fired is to gather up your worldly possessions and hit the road in search of your next adventure.