Milton Friedman on Equality, Family & Lottery

Milton Friedman on Equality, Family & Lottery


FRIEDMAN: What I’m going to talk to you about
tonight is a topic that is of extraordinary
topical importance but also of great subtlety
philosophically and in every other way. The
belief that government has both the responsibility
and the power to promote equality of income
has become an article of religious faith.
It takes about as much daring these days to
question the virtues of egalitarianism as
it used to take to question the virtues of
motherhood. I trust that, just as it no longer
takes that much courage these days to question
the virtues of motherhood, the time may come
when an even greater degree of understanding
about the problems of equality will make it
less dangerous to question the virtues of
the religious belief in equality.
Like most religious beliefs, and the reason
why it is to be called a religious belief,
this one is unexamined and preached rather
more than it is practiced. In this talk tonight
I want to discuss, first, the various meanings
that are attributed to the concept of equality
and the ambiguities which each of them have;
second, the relation between the value
of egalitarianism or equality on the one hand
and such other values as efficiency, justice,
and liberty; and third, some of the facts
about the distribution of income and about
the effects of government measures that have
been taken in the name of promoting equality.
What unit do I want to take if I am going
to measure equality of income? Do I want to
look at the person as a unit…the family?
Here I have two families, both husband and
wife. The one decided that they would prefer
to have children and the other decided that
they would prefer to have a nice automobile.
What measures equality of income-equality
per person or per family?
Now, lest you think that this problem of the
size of family is an irrelevant consideration,
let me point out to you that probably no change
in the past 75 years has done more to reduce
real poverty and real misery than the change
in the size of the family over that period,
and particularly the elimination of very large
families. If you go back to the social surveys
that were being made at the turn of the century,
you will find that the real cases of poverty
were the cases of families of relatively low
income which had a very large number of children.
If I had two families the parents and the
father, let’s say, in both cases had the same
job earning the same number of dollars per
week, the one family might be relatively well-off
because it was small while the other family
was poverty-stricken because it was undesirably
large. And the changing technology which has
enabled families to choose the size that they
prefer and to plan their families has probably
been about more important than any other single
change in the past 75 years in reducing the
incidence of real poverty and misery.
… but there are lotteries and lotteries.
I have already suggested that the young women
who seek a career on the stage or in the movies
are engaged in a lottery. People who go into
business which may yield them a lot of money
or in which they may go broke- they’re engaged
in a lottery. People who buy stocks in the
New York Stock Exchange are engaged in a lottery.
Some people are going to win, some are going
to lose, and everybody goes in it with his
eyes open knowing he may win or he may lose.
Of course we all grossly overestimate our
own chances of winning; that’s natural human
optimism. If it weren’t for that, Reno and
Las Vegas would be ghost towns. But yet, do
we really want to say that we want to have
a world in which it is impossible for people
to undertake lotteries?
If the people who preached equality really
wanted equality, there is nothing in the world
that would prevent each one of them achieving
the objective himself. If he thinks you ought
to have equality in the country as a whole,
the statistics are available for him to figure
out the average income every man in the country
has, on the average, and, if he has more than
that, for him to take the excess and distribute
it. He will be making his own contribution
to equality. If he thinks- if he believes
that what you ought to have is equality world
over, well then he could keep $75 or $100
or $200 a year for himself and give the rest
around the world to deserving objects of charity.
Indeed, the thing that impresses me most about
the people who preach equality is that it
is the new class that is the most
ardent preachers of equality and aren’t doing
badly for themselves in this unequal world.

13 thoughts on “Milton Friedman on Equality, Family & Lottery”

  1. I'm forced to disagree with Dr. Friedman about family size– specifically, that he has it ass-backwards. Families can willingly limit their size only AFTER a certain level of productivity is reached. Impoverished areas tend to have bigger families because there is simply more work that has to be done if people are to survive. An impoverished family that limits its size does not free up income, since they have almost none, but rather cuts off needed income, otherwise earned by family members.

  2. productivity and family size has no relation. it is more likely that size of family and education are more closely related then your example. i could be wrong, just my thoughts. negativity for sure isn't the answer to anything 🙂

  3. Milton Friedman- Without liberty you can't have either liberty or quality. And what I take from that is that people need a certain level of freedom to be successful for society. So that society can be as successful as possible so you have as many successful people as possible.

  4. Poor people in 3rd world countries usually have little education and cannot command much of a wage. Their children usually provide at least 1/4 of the family income. Someone in grinding poverty with 25% less income will die, simple as that.
    As for family planning, which I'm sure you refer to, the fact that poorer families have more children has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the security and continuation of their family, since odds are not all of them will live.

  5. Modern family planning, even in secluded parts of the world, has been available for over a century. Don't believe me? One of the items found on John Wilkes Booth's corpse were condoms.

  6. That is not why impoverished areas have larger families. It is your contention that the work needed to be done for one person to take care of themselves is MORE than the work needed to raise a family? That,say, a family with three children under 5 years old is more productive, somehow, than the single person? A single person has MUCH more time to devote to personal capital than does a head of a family.Family brings other benefits, of course. But I don't think you can make your argument logically

  7. A single person with no skills, no education, and no job opportunities has NO time to devote to building personal capital. The only way to survive is for extended families to pool their income and resources.
    What will make that family you describe productive is that those children do not stay under 5 forever, and will soon be able to earn income of their own. The family invests for its future in the only way it can.

  8. Fleet… the experience of the motivated uneducated and unskilled prompts them to become educated and skilled at whatever they choose. The unmotivated just wait on someone else to provide.

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