How to Argue in Favor of Free Markets

July 26, 2021

By P.J. O’Rourke

In my “Letter From the Editor” this month, I present a problem: Kids today don’t believe in free markets. Or, anyway, they aren’t pious believers. They’re market skeptics, market agnostics, even market atheists.

But I don’t present a solution… How do we show these kids the “Truth and the Way”?

I don’t present a solution because I don’t have one. Asking me to change the economic beliefs of youngsters is like asking me to be a missionary converting heathens.

I would so be in the cannibals’ pot. Either that or I’d wind up joining the fun and donating my church organist to the feast. I’m a sociable fellow.

But I lack the power of persuasion. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m good at arguing. I love to argue. What I’m not any good at is convincing… convincing anyone about anything. I know this from lifelong experience with my wife, children, dogs, employers, etc. We all get along fine – but that doesn’t mean they think I’m right about anything.

So you’ve got a kid. And this kid – for the good of the nation and for his/her/they’s material well-being – needs to get religion about the free market…


I’m not sure if you remember books, America, but it’s what people used to sink their faces into to avoid dealing with family and strangers. Our editor-in-chief, P.J. O’Rourke, has written a few in his time, and he’s re-releasing his bestselling Eat the Rich, complete with a new chapter to take on the absurdity of 2021 economics. And as an American Consequences subscriber, you can have access to the newly released edition for free! Claim Your Copy Now.

Don’t call on me. I’d come over and cut loose with some wisecracking rant that would just push your youngster to the left of Che Guevara. Then the kid and I would share a spliff and fall into a hearty agreement about Big Tech being the light that shines out the devil’s butthole. I’m useless as a proselytizer.

The best I can do by way of free market evangelism is to provide for a sort of Bible study class.

The Altar of Milton Friedman

There are two books that, for me, constitute free market scripture. The Old Testament is Capitalism and Freedom by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1962. The New Testament is Free to Choose by Milton Friedman and his wife, herself a distinguished economist, Rose Friedman, published by Harcourt Brace in 1980.

I read the New Testament first when it was published. (Please don’t take the previous sentence literally. I’m not that old.) Free to Choose gave cogent expression to all sorts of inchoate feelings about the connection between personal and economic liberty – feelings that led to the “Reagan Revolution” in November of that year (a revolution much in need of re-revolving).

I didn’t read Capitalism and Freedom until much later. It makes the same points in a more profound and scholarly way. Free to Choose is about the day-to-day practical problems of political interference in the economy. Capitalism and Freedom is a broader treatise on the philosophical, moral, and ethical foundations of having an economy independent of political power and domination.

Of course, the best thing would be for the kid in question to peruse these books cover to cover… as if.

So I’ll do what they do in church, substitute a part for the whole, and give a few readings from the canon:

… freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.
C&F, Chapter 1

Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
C&F, Chapter 1

What the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means.
C&F, Chapter 1

The use of political channels, while inevitable, tends to strain the social cohesion essential for a stable society… Every extension of [politics] strains further the delicate threads that hold society together.
C&F, Chapter 2

Mistakes… cannot be avoided in a system which disperses responsibility yet gives a few men great power, and which thereby makes important policy actions highly dependent on accidents of personality.
C&F, Chapter 3

The achievement of allocation of resources without compulsion is the major instrumental role in the market place…
C&F, Chapter 10

… voluntary exchange is a necessary condition for both prosperity and freedom.
FTC, Chapter 1

… if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it.
FTC, Chapter 1

If what people get is to be determined by “fairness,” who is to decide what is “fair”?… Clearly only force or the threat of force will do… And even terror has not equalized outcomes. In every case [of totalitarian politics], wide inequality persists by any criterion; inequality between the rulers and the ruled, not only in power, but also in material standards of life.
FTC, Chapter 5

Few of us believe in a moral code that justifies forcing people to give up much of what they produce to finance payments to persons they do not know for purposes they may not approve of.
FTC, Chapter 5

A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcomes – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who will use it to promote their own interests.
FTC, Chapter 5


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That should set the youngster thinking…

Those brief verses certainly contained free market lessons for me, especially the quotes from Capitalism and Freedom. They’ve stuck in my mind for more than a quarter of a century. And while paging through my dog-eared paperback, I realized why…

They’d come with a strong dose of lessons-to-the-contrary. I’d forgotten when and where I’d read the book, but on the end pages, I discovered an ink sketch (below) I’d made of Ernest Hemingway’s one-time home, Finca Vigía, in the impoverished village of San Francisco de Paula. While Milton Friedman was teaching the virtues of a free market, I was seeing the vices of a centrally controlled economy. I’d brought Capitalism and Freedom along to read on a 1995 assignment to Cuba.

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P.J. O’Rourke
Editor in Chief, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
July 26, 2021

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