Fear of Equality Part 9. Escape from the Collective


Milton Friedman. Grins and shrugs.
Milton Friedman. Grins and shrugs.


Milton Friedman once gave a Speech in Harlem in 1978. It is one of the worst speeches I’ve ever had to listen to. The speech is entitled, “The Escape from Collectivism. You can watch it here on YouTube. Milton Friedman asks, “Why is it that the role of government has been increasing when it comes to education?” Friedman goes on to state that since the 19th century there has been a shift in perspective with society; from a 19th century belief that the ideal individual was self-reliant and self-responsible, and totally owned his trajectory towards success or failure.

The role of the government back then (according Friedman) “was to provide maximum opportunity for the “Individual to express and develop their values and capacities.”

Friedman mockingly and dismissively regards that the modern view holds that the Individual was “an innocent puppet” beset by social forces beyond his control. According to Friedman, this puppet wasn’t responsible for his unfortunate station in life – society was. The ultimate unit in society was the “collective” – not the Individual.

Friedman further says that those 19th century schools did achieve the same goals of the19th century government: making people “responsible for their own development and learning.”

In the 20th century, again according to Friedman, the concept changed – the schools were a reflection of society’s values and interest that should be imposed upon the child. Schools sought to get the child out of the clutches of “the ignorant and unsophisticated parents and not the hands of educational experts.

Friedman complains: it’s the very concept of collectivism that alienates the individual and robs the individual of self -respect, removes from the individual feelings of importance and significance. “The whole justification for governmental public schooling was in order to provide a common framework so you can have citizens who can exist together in a single, free, democratic society.”

Golly, that sounds nice. Nevertheless, I wondered if the statement was true, so I decided to investigate the matter best I could.

Point #1.Here we lookat the assertion that there was a shared social value which arose in the 19th century in which “the ideal individual was totally responsible for his achievements and shortcomings in his life.”

Let’s see if this sweeping generalization holds water, shall we? We have plenty of information about the times of the 19th century and America’s national and international policies, social order, work relations and financial state. Throughout the 1800s, we would be remiss not to mention that the colonization program of North America began building all its wealth within the twin projects of genocide and slave trading. Wars fought against the indigenous people of this continent and against other nations became a deadly, recurring pattern. The War Between the States – which was initiated over conflict of expanding slavery to the western states kicked off at the height of the Industrial Revolution. There were many banking panics, scandals, grinding, unimaginable poverty and often deadly workmen strikes. Children were exploited in factories and if you weren’t a White, property – owning male, like a farmer or shipping magnate, there was often no justice or recourse available to you. Friedman’s assertion that during this era, the government’s role, “was to provide maximum opportunity” to for the “Individual to express and develop their values and capacities”, sounds silly and desperate.

The closest thing that lines up with Friedman’s claim could be the notion that was formed at the beginning of the 20th century with the arrival of the views of the social theorist, Max Weber, who authored the monumental thesis, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Essentially boiled down, this is the belief that hard work, faith and thriftiness led to success in one’s life. For Weber, this mindset evoked a religious morality of Capitalism. At the base of this thesis is the proposition that the Calvinist ethics inherited by Puritan and Quaker fundamentalism gave shape and direction for the religious worship of Capitalism that was woven into the social fabric of American society.

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined. The parable of the servant who was rejected because he did not increase the talent which was entrusted to him seemed to say so directly. To wish to be poor was, it was often argued, the same as wishing to be unhealthy; it is objectionable as a glorification of works and derogatory to the glory of God. Especially begging, on the part of one able to work, is not only the sin of slothfulness, but a violation of the duty of brotherly love according to the Apostle’s own word. The emphasis on the ascetic importance of a fixed calling provided an ethical justification of the modern specialized division of labour. In a similar way the providential interpretation of profit-making justified the activities of the business man.” [1]

Friedman’s point that the individual was seen as a self-directive agent that succeeded or failed on his own is a squashed and mangled oversimplification, an empty assertion pressed into service to fight a pseudo-intellectual culture war on the side of the Individual against the enemy; the Collective. What remains unspoken, yet ringing loudly in that unuttered, smirky silence is the condemnation, shaming and vilification of the impoverished, disenfranchised; in other words the sinners and heretics of the Capitalist Religion. The reality contained in the historical record is much grimmer. The government has never been interested in making sure that the Individual “express and develop their values and capacities,” as Friedman inveigled, but rather it was set up to serve the elite that owned the country.[2]

Howard Zinn said it perfectly: “Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.” (Howard Zinn) A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present.

Point #2. What about those marvelous 19th century schools that made people “responsible for their own development and learning?” Well, not entirely true. Perhaps the universities, college were able to achieve this at some level, but America’s public school system was only put in place because of the greater needs of Industry that needed a unity of compliant workers that was distributed among all the varieties of ethnic groups that comprised the populace. Friedman’s sloppy assessment that the justification for government public schooling was, “to provide a common framework so you can have citizens who can exist together in a single, free, democratic society,” is only partially correct.

John Gatto, the author of the “Dumbing Down of America,” researched the origins of the federally enforced public school system and found some interesting documentation. The public school system was originally conceived:“ as a means to achieve important economic and social goals for the national character.” Gatto quotes from a document he discovered that revealed the future educational plan of the United States (this document circa 1967). Quoting Gatto:

The BEHAVIORAL TEACHER EDUCATIONAL PROJECT outlines specific teaching reforms to be forced on the country, unwillingly of course, after 1967. It also sets out, in clear language, the outlook and intent of its invisible creators. Nothing less than quoting again “the impersonal manipulation through schooling of a future America in which few will be able to maintain control over their own opinions”, an America in which (quoting again) “each individual receives at birth, a multipurpose identification number which enables employers and other controllers to keep track of their [underlings]”, (underlings is my interpretation, everything else came out of the document), “and to expose them to the directors subliminal influence of the state education department and the federal department acting through those whenever necessary,” and quoting Gatto again: “The project identified the future as one (again I’m quoting) “in which a small league would control all important matters, one in which participatory democracy would largely disappear.”Children would be made to see that their classmates, and indeed the average man or woman were so inadequate, were so irresponsible that they had to be controlled and regulated.

The pubic school system exists for one purpose only: to create a disposable class of workers that will fight over the few jobs that are left, and apparently, that’s been the goal since the beginning.

Professor Henry A. Giroux notes that the Texas GOP has a curious plank in their political platform concerning a particular problen with education. “We oppose teaching of Higher order Thinking Skills [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental control.” This concern makes total sense if one sees that acquiring the life skill of critical reasoning is “dangerous.” It is certainly unwanted. How many times do we have to say, “Thou Shalt Not Question the System?” Don’t question yourself, your place in society, your relationship to capitalism as a commoditized consumer, your political system and most important, your beliefs and opinions you received and accepted from the media. Okay? You’re just making it harder for the rest of us to go on with our tiny, inconsequential, unimaginative lives. Listen, it’s all been thought out for you. If anyone deserves a dysfunctional, decrepit and useless educational system, it’s us! Mighty Individuals “expressing our values and capabilities” in accordance with the wishes the State and Industry.

Submitted for your approval: a report issued by John D. Rockefeller General Education Board, circa 1913. Perhaps Friedman was referring to this.

“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into men of learning or philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters, great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, statesmen, politicians, creatures of whom we (the elite?) have ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way”. [3]

Think about it: don’t you want to live your life according to an illiterate, anti-intellectual narrative that reduces for each member in society the possibilities of human and social achievement? Wouldn’t you rather base your opinions and beliefs on ignorant, emotionally charged, pseudo-intellectual soundbites that passes for “intellectual discourse” in the media? It’s in the country’s best interest that you’ve been dumbed-down and your brain rendered null and void when it comes to critical analysis of the world. The Milton Friedman’s, George Will’s and the Fox News tribes of the world are just doing their job –  to keep your expectations low and your questioning to a minimum and they are all counting on the fact that you are too wrapped up in mindless consuming and eternal bill-paying to notice how badly society is breaking down around you. Why on Earth would you want to examine the world beyond your current belief systems and rebuild language that expands and enriches meaning and possibilities for your life when you can instead easily continue to be persuaded by the same comforting half-truths and lies floating into your intellectually – enfeebled brainpan? Better to escape the evil Collective and live as a brain-dead, alienated unfulfilled yet mighty Individual.

Isn’t it?

Next: Fear of Equality, Part 10; The Theology of Capitalism


[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1905, Chapter V, “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism”

[2] John Jay, the very first Supreme Court Chief Justice exclaimed, ”The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

[3] General Education Board, Occasional Papers, No. 1 (General Education Board, New York, 1913) page 6.



One thought on “Fear of Equality Part 9. Escape from the Collective

  1. Milton Friedman considered those who protested against his intellectual authorship of Pinochet’s deadly policies “fanatics.” People who believe in human rights and democracy just don’t fit in with Friedman’s individualistic paradise. Stop thinking, dammit!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s