On freedom and Thanksgiving

Posted: Nov 21, 2006 12:00 AM

What the obituaries pretty much agree on is the greatness of the late Milton Friedman. Wouldn't one hope so? A man, an economist, viewed as the leading apostle of human freedom in our time -- not to be grateful for such a man would be irrational.

The Iraqis, considered as a unit, may not lust for the blessings and challenges of liberty, nor the North Koreans, yet Friedman's mark -- deep and comprehensive -- is on many a nation in Asia and eastern Europe and Latin America. He changed the world. In part.

What about the part he didn't and couldn't change? I step back a few paces for inspection of the premises. It is not necessary to disparage liberty -- as do centralists, socialists and big government types in all political parties -- to acknowledge that liberty is not all. We are right to celebrate it. We are right, as well, when we point to some of the more unlovely characteristics shared by liberty's friends, as well as its foes.

The lover of liberty admits -- as did Milton Friedman, at least by inference -- the limitations, the imperfections of those whose liberty we would protect. He admits, in other words, that liberty alone doesn't get the job done. Not when stupidity and cupidity, ignorance and malice, decorate the human family, guaranteeing that not every free decision is automatically a virtuous or even a sensible decision.

The lover of liberty and the teacher of morality walk hand in hand, or, where they don't, trouble brews.

The lessons of Iraq are plentiful. Here's the most troubling of them: Offer some people liberty, and they don't want it. They'd rather kidnap or behead somebody, with the ultimate objective of cramming their own ideas, their own doctrines and dogmas, down others' throats.

Human nature, humans tend to learn, can get fairly sordid, and its practitioners, fairly bloodthirsty. Even in an acknowledged democracy. Taking power a dozen years ago didn't qualify various Republicans for inclusion in the calendar of sainthood. Whatever uses they might originally have envisioned for the power they gained in 1994, they came to enjoy and expand, rather than fear and contract, the power of government itself. We're like that. Whatever the run of folk, Republican or Democratic, say about Opportunity for All, only the saintliest resist the temptation to penalize and stigmatize those who achieve the most through exercise of that opportunity. We're like that, too.

Orthodox religion (contrasted with some of the new age versions making their way around the world) looks on mankind as blessed, but also tempted, standing in the need not only of prayer, but of moral instruction applied in whatever context -- home, church, school, art, literature, business; in all places where "right" and "wrong" are accorded separate identities.

The 21st century mode is to resist instruction: freedom, you know; do your own thing. Milton Friedman was readier than the moralists just to go on and strike off the political and economic fetters, and wait for enlightened self-interest and restraint to kick in. But he understood (as did Adam Smith, his intellectual forbear) that nothing like human perfection awaits humans.

The Friedman side of things is half of the conservative equation. The other, gloomier half points to the imperfections of human nature and says hold on a blessed minute here. Few politicians or pundits pitch tents in both communities.

Still, the communities of freedom and order overlap in all important respects, their presence reminding us why we give thanks on Thanksgiving. Not because Americans are "better" than Iraqis and North Koreans. Rather, because Americans, despite their tantrums (the late election campaign comes to mind) and their surrenders to temptation (the late Republican Congress comes to mind), understand almost uniquely (the British who taught us) that life is all about balance. Successful, fulfilling life, that is to say -- life like our own, broadly speaking, in the land of the free, the home of the brave.

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