For Milton Friedman, life is but a game, sweetheart

(Note: This is the inaugural post by “tiaramer.”)

One big open question for those thinking about ethics in deliberately adversarial institutions concerns how literally or directly we can transplant the vocabulary of sports to other domains. Are markets, for example, just games, or just like games, or only metaphorically and very imperfectly like games?

For Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this question doesn’t seem very open at all. He seems to take it as obvious that not only markets, but life in society in general, is very similar in structure to a game.

The day-to-day activities are like the actions of the participants in a game when they are playing it; the framework, like the rules of the game they play. And just as a good game requires acceptance by the players both of the rules and of the umpire to interpret and enforce them, so a good society requires that its members agree on general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules. As in games, so also in society, most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly. At most, we consider explicitly only minor modifications in them, though the cumulative effect of a series of minor modifications may be a drastic alteration in the character of the game or of the society. In both games and society also, no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions; unless that is, there is a broad underlying social census. But we cannot rely on custom or on census alone to interpret and enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules,  and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p. 25; emphasis added)

So for Friedman we willingly, and usually unthinkingly, accept many of these “rules of the game” although we may not know their origins. And if we don’t, there is always an “umpire” there to enforce them anyway!

But his thorough-going acceptance of the direct parallel between good games and good societies raises more questions than it answers. Even if markets can be quite game-like, what does it mean for life in general to be compared to a game? Are we talking about the same kind of “goodness” when we think about a “good game” and a “good society”? Does a “good” society really require acceptance of rules by all of the citizens?

And what if you don’t want to “play” any more? Is it even possible to pick up your bat and ball and go home?



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