Monday, February 02, 2009

Free to Choose, alternatives to the framework

I have an idea that I would like to put into practice. In the 1990s, Milton Friedman teamed up with the Free to Choose Media network to create the made-for-TV economics series "Free to Choose", titled after Friedman's second-most popular book. I think there has been a lack of radical organizations interested in made-for-TV presentations like the kind that the 'right' or 'conservative' establishment has been. The kind of program I would be interested in describes radical social, political and economic theory. Of the few that I have seen, most of them focus solely on climate change.

The program would not necessarily be radical in every aspect, but it would explain new areas where globalization studies, gender studies, and political economy are moving to - largely from a radical perspective. The series would not be academic in every aspect either. The goal would be to interest the viewer and the encourage them to pursue radical scholarship or practice, to think about the world as a radical would, to provoke a radical perspective shift.

"Free to Choose" presented Chicago economics as the new economic truth - hands down - and highlighted Friedman's analysis of the Federal Reserve policy during the Great Depression (based on Anna Schwartz and his book on the subject, Monetary History of the United States), including freedoms to enter into voluntary contracts, migrate, work, and condemned the vagaries of government programs and spending. The film series, and the books, and the enormous campaign behind it - helped bring Chicago ideas and practices to the forefront of American political and economic thought for over two decades.

The television narrative is simple, repetitive, and effective. Friedman starts by telling the story of immigrants coming to the US in search of free markets. People came because they went looking for work, and so they came to America and sold goods on the street. Most of the were very poor, but today they are wealthy, he says. Bit by bit Friedman makes the case for small government and market capitalism, using China and Hong Kong as an example of communism turning to capitalism for stability. "We need to discover the old truths, what the immigrants knew in their bones," he says, and to learn that we must know "what economic freedom is."

His statements are very agreeable - because he's not telling the whole story. By letting people choose the things they want, Friedman says, and have the freedom to do what they want with their lives, they will be happier than if a commissar ordered them around and told them what to make and for what price, ect. ect. Exactly! Freedom is a good thing. Except that Friedman stops the narrative after that. The program - and his books - exercise in the logic of the free market, but without externalities, without labor organization, without other ways of using the means of production, and pithy excuses for the environment. That way we only need to think as far as Friedman is thinking. How dare we talk about gender or gentrification or poverty cycles?

It is very easy to agree with Friedman. (Maybe some people don't agree with me on this.) It's a clever framework. The trouble is, a radical television series would make these issues complicated. Friedman has done so much to uncomplicate capitalism, but the issues we deal with are more complicated than him and his colleagues often present them.

What's more interesting is that the "Free to Choose" series, in a sense, is mostly concerned about motivating the viewer, getting them excited about the possibilities in a free market. Its chief advantage is that it provides us with such a grand story that an objector would not want to think of anything better than capitalism. (If you have ever seen Kent Hovind's creationist science video series, perhaps you feel the same way I do: like asking, "Ah, where do I begin?" You should have stopped him when he was talking about dinosaurs roaming modern sub-Saharan Africa, but you let him babble on and he started talking about the myth of vestigial appendages. I think the same about Friedman.)

A radical television series would have to avoid these types of logical screw-ups. We have to assume our audience is more intelligent and will question the assumptions. We want them to question the assumptions. We pride ourselves in being non-dogmatic, so we have to present, problematize, and create a unitary body of knowledge that we construct for our own use but invite others to partake in it. ("Critical Thinking as an Anarchist Weapon").

The ten-part series Free to Choose is comprised of the following chapters.

  1. The Power of the Market (Abstract) (Video)
  2. The Tyranny of Control (Abstract) (Video)
  3. Anatomy of Crisis (Abstract) (Video)
  4. From Cradle to Grave (Abstract) (Video)
  5. Created Equal (Abstract) (Video)
  6. What's Wrong with Our Schools? (Abstract) (Video)
  7. Who Protects the Consumer? (Abstract) (Video)
  8. Who Protects the Worker? (Abstract) (Video)
  9. How to Cure Inflation (Abstract) (Video)
  10. How to Stay Free (Abstract) (Video)
Not too many radical academics or filmmakers have embarked on a mission to create a film campaign to disseminate their ideas besides a few notable people (Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, etc.) That kind of program could be a very valuable and effective collection of ideas. A lay out of the chapters could be something like this:

  1. Why inequality matters
  2. Analysis of the business cycle
  3. Neo-colonialism, the highest stage of imperialism
  4. Collectivists, communists, and syndicalists
  5. Theory of the general strike
  6. Mutual aid & agriculture
  7. Land rights
  8. Cities & Situationism
  9. Gender, identity, harm
  10. Insurrection in practice, how to live free

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