Milton Friedman turned 100 yesterday. Over on Skepticslawyers, Lorenzo's Friedman centenary commemorates the birthday with links to some other reviews. On Freedom and Flourishing, Winton Bates's What did Milton Friedman have to say about human flourishing? looks at Friedman's views on freedom. Another affectionate personal blogging view is provided in Remembering Milton Friedman on His 100th Birthday.
Professor Friedman exercised a considerable personal influence on my thinking when I was working in the Commonwealth Treasury, although my focus then was on his thinking about macro economics.
One of the issues arising in comments was the question of freedom and paternalism.
David Drummond, the main writer articulating what I call New England populism, made the point in 1926 that all laws affected human freedom. He also warned against what he called the oppression of the minority. If Governments had powers, they would use them. In democratic systems, this inevitably meant that minority groups were likely to be oppressed by the majority. Drummond was not opposed to Government action per se, far from it. His focus lay in the development of constitutional systems that would better match government to needs, that would control what he saw as the evils of power and oppression.
When I read Drummond's views in the early 1980s as part of my research into his life, they chimed with my own experiences. Among other things, governments and their officials believe that they are right, believe that the will of government should be observed and are inclined to exercise coercive power to achieve their ends even if that power is in fact being misapplied.
Thinking about the comments on Winton's piece in the light of my own views, I decided that I wanted to make a simple point in this post.
The provision of assistance to a group such as the unemployed or single parents on social grounds does not breech freedom except in the very broad sense that those payments limit someone else's freedom to spend their own money. Nor is that provision paternalistic because the state is not acting as parent, is not telling people what to do. Peoples' freedom is unaffected except to the extent that those receiving the assistance have choices that they would not otherwise have.
Things change, however, when behavioural rules are attached to the support. Requiring unemployed people to look for work is one class. Since the purpose of unemployment assistance is to provide people with a safety net until they find a new job, it is perfectly appropriate to require them to look. Whether the exact rules applied are reasonable is a very different question.
Welfare quarantining is a very different issue. Here we move into a new field, for we we have rules applied (we will dictate how you spend your money) that actually have little to do with the original purpose of the assistance. It may be a good thing that people send their children to school. We have laws and processes to bring this about. But this is a different issue from dictating how people should spend their money.
As a matter of general principle, the use of a public policy instrument designed to achieve one thing to achieve a different thing is always suspect. More broadly, when that use is intended to constrain behaviour, to make people conform to socially acceptable norms, then the smell of paternalism is in the air.