The enduring relevance of Milton Friedman has been a recurring theme around here. Please see, for example, 2018's "The Hottest Midterm Race Is Milton Friedman Versus Marc Benioff" and 2020's "Biden Runs Against Milton Friedman."
Sunday's New York Times devoted a full special print section to the 50th anniversary of a Friedman New York Times Magazine essay headlined "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits."
As part of the project, the Times solicited pieces reflecting on the essay.
Some of them are really good. I particularly liked the one by Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot: "if we ignore Friedman's crystalline perception — that profits are the driving focus — then the entire mission, good will included, falls apart. When we turn the idea of profit into a callous slur, as Friedman's laziest critics often do, we are demeaning the essential propelling force that enables all these interconnected good works to occur."
Some of the other Times-solicited pieces are pretty scary. The president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, writes: "ultimately Friedman ignored that in a democratic-capitalist society, democracy must come first. 'We, the people' grant businesses their license to operate — which they, in turn, must earn and renew."
Walker is so wrong. Since he mentions "we the people," let's go to the founding documents. The Declaration of Independence says that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The rights come from God, not some government license that must be earned. They are inalienable, that is, they can't be taken away. The Fifth Amendment states "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The logic of those documents is sound. If the property of an unpopular minority is subject to seizure by a majority, that's not "democracy," it's closer to mob rule, or communism, especially when the criteria that the business must meet to keep its license or that the business owners must meet to keep their property are vague and ever-shifting. Privileging "democracy" over "capitalism" effectively tramples the advantages of capitalism—incentives, prosperity, growth, opportunity, innovation, reinforcement of virtues such as industry and frugality.