The Problem With Libertarianism In One Dumb Milton Friedman Quote

Recently a Libertarian friend of mine posted on Facebook this gem of a quote:

If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.

I’ve come across this Milton Friedman quote several times before and it always brings a smile to my face because it sums up Libertarianism as a whole.

Milton Friedman was a prominent economist and Nobel laureate who made important contributions to monetary theory. But he was also doggedly committed to unfettered capitalism to the extent that he advocated allowing racial discrimination, which is the final logical conclusion of free market idealism. He’s basically the male Ayn Rand…but better at writing fiction.

So what’s wrong with this particular Milton Friedman quote. First of all, sand is actually kind of awful. Indeed, human civilization was founded in the Arabian and Saharan deserts for the sole purpose of removing sand from people’s lives. If anything government is about creating a shortage of sand and accomplished it with aplomb. So…thanks government! (Not to mention that desertification is one of the greatest environmental threats facing the globe — so maybe we could use some government sand removal)

I understand Friedman is arguing that the government is a poor resource manager. But why choose sand? There are other seemingly infinite resources that the government could hypothetically squander. And at least some of those would actually be useful to people. Like what about fresh water? Probably because the government IS in charge of most fresh water supplies and manages them brilliantly.

Friedman could have said, “If you put the government in charge of fire protection, in five years we’d be living in a constant inferno,” but that would have been stupid since we all know that public fire and police protection work in America.

So Milton Friedman leaves us with the perfect distillation of Libertarianism: a philosophy predicated on a straw argument undermined by minimal critical thinking.


8 comments for “The Problem With Libertarianism In One Dumb Milton Friedman Quote

  1. Allen
    November 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I’m not a libertarian but I don’t think you’ve understood the quote. It’s deliberately ironic. Out of all the resources you could have a shortage of, sand would be one the least likeliest candidates in the Sahara Desert. The fact that the federal government could bring about a shortage of sand, however improbable and in spite of the fact that there’s a massive surplus of it illustrates Friedman’s view of the federal government.

    None of your other examples have this irony and thus don’t make for very memorable quotes.

    • November 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      Perhaps my point wasn’t clear. Friedman is obviously looking for something we have a huge surplus of and jokingly suggesting that the government would squander it. But in crafting the analogy he chose a specific product that the government doesn’t control when comparable products give lie to the analogy.

      I suggested “water” which is ridiculously plentiful on this planet (and if you build desalination plants it’s almost limitless) and he didn’t say, “if you put the government in charge of Lake Michigan there’d be a shortage of water.”

      My point is that Friedman’s jape reveals more than he wishes, because it makes you realize, “hey we have put the government in charge of Lake Michigan (and other bodies of water)…and that seems to be working out just fine.”

  2. Allen
    November 28, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Yeah, you’ve made your point clearer now. The desertification thing wasn’t really necessary to mention since Friedman was deliberately looking for an overabundant commodity. But the quote is a straw man argument for sure. The most memorable quotes are rarely the most intellectual.

  3. Calis Sims
    June 30, 2013 at 1:18 am

    Their entire philosophy is a ‘straw argument!’

  4. Tazzle
    June 30, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    The argument against libertarianism was made in an article I read recently about why there is no such thing as a libertarian government in any country in the world. Even Somalia created a government recently after years of anarchy. It’s because libertarianism doesn’t work in the framework of anything but a discussion. The majority of people expect their countries to provide for their social welfare in some way. Libertarians are the exception, not the rule. I see old teabaggers holding up signs saying, “Keep Government Out of Medicare.” They rail at socialism and government while expecting it to cut them their Social Security checks and provide their healthcare. Libertarians wail that it shouldn’t be that way. But, it’s a losing battle. Many of the biggest government critics enjoy their social programs. Ron Paul decries government spending while bringing pork to his district in the form of grants for shrimp farming research, decorative trash cans and lighting, and building an addition to a Baptist community center. I know Paulbots that eschew going to private colleges to go to cheaper state ones that are funded with federal block grants and who get federal jobs or state jobs funded with block grants. Libertarianism as a form of government is a fantasy and will always be one. The most conservative areas of our country are conversely the ones most dependent on government.

  5. Anonymous
    July 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    To paraphrase Milton Friedman: If you put a free market idealist in the Oval Office, there would be no shortage of wars. (See “W” for details.)

  6. brando
    July 31, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Police works in america? Hm… that’s funny… I thought that crime was rampant in many areas, and while less rampant in the rest, still existant. Is this an example of something “working”? Guess its as good an example as you get when talking government….

  7. Matt Hooper
    April 1, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Only a damn jackass could interpret the great Milton Friedman in such a ridiculous manner. The government these loony lefties love so much does not exist without first taking from the Private Sector to build their beloved Hackatopia. Police & Fire are working out brilliantly ? At what cost ? Boston had 41 fires last year. Thousands and thousands of Fire Fighters sitting on their brains earning $150K / $200k a year not to mention future Pensions that would make any honest man blush. Cops guarding Construction sites for $175K a year. Friedman warned us of the Fed Govt when it was the size of a big dog. Now it’s larger than Godzilla. In 1978 Friedman gave the US a 30% chance of avoiding Socialism and complete collapse. The Debt was around $400 Billion. It’s now $17 Trillion. He must be spinning in his grave. You are not worthy to sharpen his pencils.

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