Free to Choose was the title of Milton Friedman’s book, a sort of gospel of free markets providing endless consumer choice and thereby making everyone better off.
However, the same title could also introduce a broader argument, that free choice is the ultimate, increasingly only, creed of modernity. Like so many other creeds, this one has Judaeo-Christian antecedents, albeit torn off their original moorings and cast adrift.
Before Darwin created the world, it was understood that man possessed free will and therefore the ability to make a choice between virtue and vice, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.
Good choices were understood to assist salvation, while bad ones could well lead to perdition. Since the difference between the two still hadn’t been reduced to a mere figure of speech, freedom was understood as an unfettered opportunity to be the best one could be, to overcome every obstacle blocking one’s path to salvation.
Ever since Christianity privatised the spirit, such obstacles have been defined not just as outside barriers but also, perhaps mainly, as internal failings – including wanton indulgence of excessive and unworthy appetites.
Western civilisation was at the time teleological, one with not only a clearly defined beginning, but also with a universally understood forthcoming end. Everything, including freedom, was seen in terms of either advancing or hindering man’s progression to the ultimate goal.
In other words, freedom was a means, not the end. If it delivered good choices, freedom served its purpose; if not, freedom undermined it.
Logically, the value of a choice had to be judged by an arbiter external to man and infinitely higher than him. Man himself could no more act in that capacity than a footballer can act both as player and referee in the same match.
When that arbiter, God, was removed as an authority, the essence of freedom disappeared, and only the shell of liberty remained. One’s choices could no longer be arbitrated by anybody but oneself, and self tends to be a lenient judge.
To be sure, man was encouraged to accept external limitations to freedom, those imposed by the law and consonant with political liberty – with again no distinction made between just and unjust laws, or indeed between just and unjust authority to impose laws. But any internal checks on one’s appetites got to be deemed first intolerable and then unfathomable.
Free choice stopped being a means to an end and became an end in itself, the blanket vindication of modernity. What people chose no longer mattered, that they chose was enough to satisfy modern sensibilities.
Free market principles were taken out of the market and got to be applied to areas of life that had hitherto operated on different principles altogether. Politics is one such.
People have been taught to believe that by voting every few years they exercise their free choice, thereby serving the new concept of virtue and in effect governing themselves.
No one seems to mind that the quality of the political goods on offer has been steadily declining for decades – as a direct result of people making choices most of them aren’t qualified to make. Then again, causes have been excommunicated as worthy subjects of ratiocination; only the effects matter, and the processes by which they are produced.
We don’t question any choice as long as it was freely made by half the voters plus one (unless, of course, the choice flies in the face of modern pieties). Paradoxes abound, such as the possibility that the electorate may freely vote to put itself into bondage.
(This isn’t just fanciful speculation, as anyone will agree who has pondered the full consequences of Britain getting a Marxist government after the next general election.)
But even barring such disastrous possibilities, none of our last four prime ministers would ever have got anywhere near government at a time when free political choice was still informed by moral and intellectual constraints of responsibility.
Even in the economic arena, free choice unchecked by prudence, wisdom and humility, creates not only riches but also a rich potential for disaster. As a random example, in the 20 years before the calamity of 2008, consumer spending in the US – the reference point of free choice – had exceeded consumer earning by a factor of three.
The balance was financed by promiscuous borrowing, which paradoxically turned economic freedom into economic slavery, what with almost every free chooser becoming a beggar to assorted loan officers.
If questions can be raised about the advisability of unqualified consumer choice even in its natural habitat, its calamitous effect in other areas is in plain view.
Free choice not just trumps any other virtues, but pushes them into extinction. Thus children are given a full menu of available sexual variants and are encouraged to choose among them freely, devoid as they all are of any moral connotations.
If their physiological makeup keeps certain choices off limits, the tots are invited to change their sex, choosing whatever suits them best among a dozen or so possibilities (and I didn’t even know that all but three or four actually existed). Free choice is a jealous god, and it’s always athirst.
Abortion, which is certainly not without a whole raft of moral implications, has been reduced to the simple matter of a woman’s free choice – even at a stage when abortion visibly becomes infanticide.
Ditto assisted suicide: a man’s life is his own and he can freely choose how to end it, with no moral millstone around his neck weighing him down. If he’s in no position to make such a free choice, not to fret: the privilege simply passes on to his family or doctors.
It’s not just matters of life or death. If a youngster chooses to cover his body with the kind of tattoos that would have put an aboriginal Polynesian c. 1800 to shame, it’s his free choice and no one can tell him he’s but a cretinous barbarian. If his girlfriend roams the streets sporting a pound of facial metal and hardly anything else, the god of free choice grins and never mind anyone or anything else.
A scientist creating test tube monsters is encouraged by the reassuring thought that he’s perusing free scientific inquiry – that demiurge’s grin gets wider. If our genetic pool somehow seems deficient, we can freely choose to clean it up with a bit of engineering or even eugenic homicide.
Scientists working in different fields feel no moral compunction to desist from developing toxins that can make Black Death and Spanish flu seem like a slight cold, or for that matter bombs exceeding Little Boy’s yield by several factors of magnitude.
Dostoyevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov summed it all up neatly: “And without God and without life everlasting? That means then that everything is permitted, that one can do anything?” Today he wouldn’t have to ask the same question. It would go without saying.