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Book - Capitalism and Freedom Capitalism and Freedom
by Milton Friedman

Preface, 1982

Reprinted from Capitalism and Freedom published by the University of Chicago Press,
Copyright © 1962 by the University of Chicago.
All Rights Reserved


The lectures that my wife helped shape into this book were delivered a quarter of a century ago. It is hard even for persons who were then active, let alone for the more than half of the current population who were then less than ten years old or had not yet been born, to reconstruct the intellectual climate of the time. Those of us who were deeply concerned about the danger to freedom and prosperity from the growth of government, from the triumph of welfare-state and Keynesian ideas, were a small beleaguered minority regarded as eccentrics by the great majority of our fellow intellectuals.

Even seven years later, when this book was first published, its views were so far out of the mainstream that it was not reviewed by any major national publication—not by the New York Times or the Herald Tribune (then still being published in New York) or the Chicago Tribune, or by Time or Newsweek or even the Saturday Review—though it was reviewed by the London Economist and by the major professional journals. And this for a book directed at the general public, written by a professor at a major U.S. university, and destined to sell more than 400,000 copies in the next eighteen years. It is inconceivable that such a publication by an economist of comparable professional standing but favorable to the welfare state or socialism or communism would have received a similar silent treatment.

How much the intellectual climate has changed in the past quarter-century is attested to by the very different reception that greeted my wife’s and my book Free To Choose, a direct linear descendant of Capitalism and Freedom presenting the same basic philosophy and published in 1980. That book was reviewed by every major publication, frequently in a featured, lengthy review. It was not only partly reprinted in Book Digest, but also featured on the cover. Free To Choose sold some 400,000 hardcover copies in the U.S. in its first year, has been translated into twelve foreign languages, and was issued in early 1981 as a mass-market paperback.

The difference in reception of the two books cannot, we believe, be explained by a difference in quality. Indeed, the earlier book is the more philosophical and abstract, and hence more fundamental. Free To Choose, as we said in its preface, has “more nuts and bolts, less theoretical framework.” It complements, rather than replaces, Capitalism and Freedom. On a superficial level, the difference in reception can be attributed to the power of television. Free To Choose was based on and designed to accompany our PBS series of the same name, and there can be little doubt that the success of the TV series gave prominence to the book.

That explanation is superficial because the existence and success of the TV program itself is testimony to the change in the intellectual climate. We were never approached in the 1960s to do a TV series like Free To Choose. There would have been few if any sponsors for such a program. If, by any chance, such a program had been produced, there would have been no significant audience receptive to its views. No, the different reception of the later book and the success of the TV series are common consequences of the change in the climate of opinion. The ideas in our two books are still far from being in the intellectual mainstream, but they are now, at least, respectable in the intellectual community and very likely almost conventional among the broader public.

The change in the climate of opinion was not produced by this book or the many others, such as Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Constitution of Liberty, in the same philosophical tradition. For evidence of that, it is enough to point to the call for contributions to the symposium "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy" issued by the editors of Commentary in 1978, which went in part: “The idea that there may be an inescapable connection between capitalism and democracy has recently begun to seem plausible to a number of intellectuals who once would have regarded such a view not only as wrong but even as politically dangerous.” My contribution consisted of an extensive quotation from Capitalism and Freedom, a briefer one from Adam Smith, and a closing invitation: “Welcome aboard.”1 Even in 1978, of the 25 contributors to the symposium other than myself, only 9 expressed views that could be classified as sympathetic to the central message of Capitalism and Freedom

The change in the climate of opinion was produced by experience, not by theory or philosophy. Russia and China, once the great hopes of the intellectual classes, had clearly gone sour. Great Britain, (sic) whose Fabian socialism exercised a dominant influence on American intellectuals, was in deep trouble. Closer to home, the intellectuals, always devotees of big government and by wide majorities supporters of the national Democratic party, had been disillusioned by the Vietnam War, particularly the role played by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Many of the great reform programs—such guidons of the past as welfare, public housing, support of trade unions, integration of schools, federal aid to education, affirmative action—were turning to ashes. As with the rest of the population, their pocketbooks were being hit with inflation and high taxes. These phenomena, not the persuasiveness of the ideas expressed in books dealing with principles, explain the transition from the overwhelming defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the overwhelming victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980—two men with essentially the same program and the same message.

What then is the role of books such as this? Twofold, in my opinion. First, to provide subject matter for bull sessions. As we wrote in the preface to Free To Choose: “The only person who can truly persuade you is yourself. You must turn the issues over in your mind at leisure, consider the many arguments, let them simmer, and after a long time turn your preferences into convictions.”

Second, and more basic, to keep options open until circumstances make change necessary. There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

A personal story will perhaps make my point. Sometime in the late 1960s I engaged in a debate at the University of Wisconsin with Leon Keyserling, an unreconstructed collectivist. His clinching blow, as he thought, was to make fun of my views as utterly reactionary, and he chose to do so by reading, from the end of chapter 2 of this book, the list of items that, I said, “cannot, so far as I can see, validly be justified in terms of the principles outlined above.” He was doing very well with the audience of students as he went through my castigation of price supports, tariffs, and so on, until he came to point 11, “Conscription to man the military services in peacetime.” That expression of my opposition to the draft brought ardent applause and lost him the audience and the debate.

Incidentally, the draft is the only item on my list of fourteen unjustified government activities that has so far been eliminated—and that victory is by no means final. In respect of many of the other items, we have moved still farther away from the principles espoused in this book—which is, on one hand, a reason why the climate of opinion has changed and, on the other, evidence that that change has so far had little practical effect. Evidence also that the fundamental thrust of this book is as pertinent to 1981 as to 1962, even though some examples and details may be outdated.

1 Commentary, April 1978, pp.29-71


THIS BOOK IS A LONG-DELAYED PRODUCT of a series of lectures that I gave in June, 1956 at a conference at Wabash College directed by John Van Sickle and Benjamin Rogge and sponsored by the Volker Foundation. In subsequent years, I have given similar lectures at Volker conferences directed by Arthur Kemp, at Claremont College, directed by Clarence Philbrook, at the University of North Carolina, and directed by Richard Leftwich, at Oklahoma State University. In each case I covered the contents of the first two chapters of this book, dealing with principles, and then applied the principles to a varied set of special problems.

I am indebted to the directors of these conferences not only for inviting me to give the lectures, but even more for their criticisms and comments on them and for friendly pressure to write them up in tentative form, and to Richard Cornuelle, Kenneth Templeton, and Ivan Bierly of the Volker Foundation who were responsible for arranging the conferences. I am indebted also to the participants who, by their incisive probing and deep interest in the issues, and unquenchable intellectual enthusiasm, forced me to rethink many points and to correct many errors. This series of conferences stands out as among the most stimulating intellectual experiences of my life. Needless to say, there is probably not one of the directors of the conferences or participants in them who agrees with everything in this book. But I trust they will not be unwilling to assume some of the responsibility for it.

I owe the philosophy expressed in this book and much of its detail to many teachers, colleagues, and friends, above all to a distinguished group I have been privileged to be associated with at the University of Chicago: Frank H. Knight, Henry C. Simons, Lloyd W. Mints, Aaron Director, Friedrich A. Hayek, George J. Stigler. I ask their pardon for my failure to acknowledge specifically the many ideas of theirs which they will find expressed in this book. I have learned so much from them and what I have learned has become so much a part of my own thought that I would not know how to select points to footnote.

I dare not try to list the many others to whom I am indebted, lest I do some an injustice by inadvertently omitting their names. But I cannot refrain from mentioning my children, Janet and David, whose willingness to accept nothing on faith has forced me to express technical matters in simple language and thereby improved both my understanding of the points and, hopefully, my exposition. I hasten to add that they too accept only responsibility, not identity of views.

I have drawn freely from material already published. Chapter i is a revision of material published earlier under the title used for this book in Felix Morley (ed.), Essays in Individuality (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958) and in still a different form under the same title in The New Individualist Review, Vol. I, No. 1 (April, 1961). Chapter vi is a revision of an article by the same title first published in Robert A. Solo (ed.), Economics and the Public Interest (Rutgers University Press, 1955). Bits and pieces of other chapters have been taken from various of my articles and books.

The refrain, “But for my wife, this book would not have been written,” has become a commonplace in academic prefaces. In this case, it happens to be the literal truth. She pieced together the scraps of the various lectures, coalesced different versions, translated lectures into something more closely approaching written English, and has throughout been the driving force in getting the book finished. The acknowledgment on the title page is an understatement.

My secretary, Muriel A. Porter, has been an efficient and dependable resource in time of need, and I am very much in her debt. She typed most of the manuscript as well as many earlier drafts of part of it.

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