MILTON FRIEDMAN: He talked a good game on responsibility….and sure enough, the responsibility lies with him.

How the neocon hero gave business a licence to be licentious


Hero and admirer share an intimate moment

The late  Milton Friedman’s most famous (nearly always misquoted) pronouncement on business was, So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no they do not“.

It’s complete bollocks of course, because it works on the assumption that as business takes nothing from society, there’s no earthly reason why it should voluntarily put anything back. This is demonstrably untrue, although if a company wanted to draw its own water, generate its own energy, educate its own workforce and provide them with A-class healthcare, I wouldn’t have a problem with the concept.

It’s also naive (Friedman was a staggeringly naive chap) because in adding his ‘stay within the law’ codicil it never occurred to his narrow brain that if the law is being lobbied and ultimately decided by crooked businessmen, the entire construct falls down. And if armies of tax-avoider accountancy legals can enable big business to pay almost no tax at all, then who else is there to pay for it but the consumer of their products? As those conditions pertain in most Anglo-Saxon countries today, the ideas of Friedman cease to be merely daft and become positively dangerous.

Hence today’s theme outlined in my earlier post: big business behaves, generally, in an irresponsible and anti-social manner. None do so more than suppliers of internet hardware and services in general, and software in particular. I have a Hewlett Packard laptop and a Hewlett Packard printer, so you’d think getting them to talk to each other would be easy. After all, if they don’t, then the printer is useless. My HP printer is useless.

It is useless for a reason that is terrifyingly simple, but which HP goes out of its way around the globe to hide, and it is this: if you’ve been handed, sorry forced to take, an update on your HP pc some time ago, it is very likely that a new line of printers won’t be able to read that upgrade because it is an old upgrade. The only way round this is to buy either a new pc or a new printer. Which, of course, HP don’t want you to have to do, oh nononononono.

Hewlett Packard pulls this kind of stunt because its sole business objective is to shift the largest possible volume of boxes at the highest possible margin. Given that when they’ve done this, society then has to find somewhere to dump all the useless crap they’ve produced to that end, shouldn’t that business pay hugely towards the mop-up job? Further, the production-driven model of western globalism has been a massive contributor to the movement of jobs into Asia – because frankly, we can’t compete head-to-head on volume. But HP is never going to buy that idea, because that idea will kill their business. So their aims are antithetical to those of the Sovereign State that provides all those extras for which they don’t want to pay.

Once again, Friedman’s construct for the role of business in society tumbles to the ground, it having been constructed from over-ripe bananas pasted together with lascivious greed.

Not that I’m in any way awarding a saintly role to Sovereigns. The Beijing regime decided some twenty years ago to quietly adopt a crap-exporting economy based on low wage costs and long hours, as of course you’d expect a principled Communist regime to do. In doing this, they have single-handedly doubled the world’s waste disposal problem, and covered the Earth in solar garden lights that illuminate nothing beyond themselves. To get out of a mess created by currency strength, the Japanese have embarked on a potty QE + intravenous heroin stimulation programme that will f**k up every other low cost Asian economy in very short order, and worsen an already appalling world economic slump, while very probably rendering most people’s savings worthless. This was a situation that the multinational guys lobbied forty years to get, Milt: howdya like them apples, bright guy?

Two weeks ago I bought a bicycle pump. Bicycle pumps these days don’t look the way they used to. The Chinese ones also don’t come with any instructions. I had to take it back to the shop after several guests passing through had tried and failed to grasp WTF it was about. The bloke in the shop couldn’t figure it out either, and said I’d have to go to the website. My outburst changed his mind very rapidly about that, and after nearly a quarter of an hour he finally managed to prise a hidden adapter out of the main wind-tunnel and reverse it.

Do businesses have any responsibility for public health, given they cost the State health services a fortune every year? Of course they do. So in the UK alcohol sector, we have self regulation. The selling message goes out in 15pt bold, and the Drinkaware warning in 0.2 pt italic flyshit. Would anyone with half a brain expect a booze manufacturer to do anything else? If the police regulating themselves is a disastrous fix from end to end, why would an adult person expect a self-regulated yellow fats producer to be better? Milton Friedman would – that’s who.

It may be that Monsanto’s business aims will one day wipe out the human race thanks to the death of old wheat strains – I’m not sure, it’s a complex subject. What I do know is that Monsanta doesn’t give a monkey’s peanut up the backside about it either way – and crooked elements in the EU are conspiring to stymie the private growing and distribution of non-GM seed to help Monsanta get their way. So there they are Milton my little Ivy League babe-in-arms: totally within the law, and totally without any concern for the consequences of their behaviour. Waydergo.

“There is always resort to the law” a threader observed on this subject the other day. Ah yes, business law. The Nazi copyright policies of, for example, Getty Images. Ask a few illustrators and snappers what they think of Getty. Of trying to sue Getty. There is no recourse to the Law for poor people, because lawyers are greedy gargoyles offering to sue businesses who sell someone in long trousers a raw prawn without telling them to cook it. That’s good for business, isn’t it? But get cheated by Big, and you’ve no chance. Why? Because Big lobbied against legal aid in such cases.

Even if one wants to argue against the need for a sense of social responsibility, it’s hard to suggest that one has zero responsibility to customers once you’ve sold them something: but that is, by and large, the attitude of most website owners – or manufacturers using them as an important distribution medium. Whether they’re selling to end users – or making a turn on selling on their details – is irrelevant, because the latter only compounds the crime. The after-service offered by Youtube, Microsoft, Google, Blogger, Gmail, Facebook, Paypal and Twitter is nothing short of disgraceful. Meaningless explanations for malfunction – ‘An Unknown Error has occurred’ – sit unhappily alongside helplines that don’t help, and user forums full of unfortunates who all have the same problem, but keep asking each other “I wonder what it is?”

I’ve been trying to use Youtube’s wonderful new two-step system of instant uploads for three months now. The sound doesn’t work, and the forum is full of people saying the sound doesn’t work. But type ‘sound doesn’t work’ into the search engine, and ‘No Results Found’ comes up. Would it be that hard for someone from Youtube to visit the forum and check now and then? Only, as I and others are going elsewhere because of this problem, that looks suspiciously to me like shirking one’s responsibility to the shareholders as well. My oh my, Milt would be upset. But Milton Friedman assumed ethical perfection on the part of business. And he’s dead now anyway. So Milt being upset doesn’t help much, does it?

Indirectly as a result of this job-free aftercare, hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed and millions of customers are pissed off….just so the shareholders’ return can be maximised. It is, frankly, an idiotic way to do business, the long-term consequences of which would be obvious to a donkey of average common sense. But it is the Milt Friedman way to do business; because you see, Milt never ran a business. Never, not once, in his entire life….apart from charging for lecture tours and talking about being in business.

I hate to resort to anything Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov said, but he did coin one marvellous term: “useful idiots”.

Milton Friedman was a useful academic idiot who has been used by every unscrupulous business manager for thirty years as the standard excuse for behaving like a sociopath. Does business have a responsibility to society? Of course it does: business works for society, not the other way round.

Friedman, however, remarked “Society is just a collection of people”. So are markets Milt, so are markets.

Related: Some consequences of the global retreat from reality