Milton Friedman Speaks: The Role of Government in a Free Society
John Stuart Mill said, in effect, that self-protection is the only legitimate reason for people to interfere with the freedom of others. If we are to define the role of government in a free society, we must first specify what we mean by self-protection. Defense from foreign enemies and protection of property, including the enforcement of private contracts, are clearly legitimate functions of government. But when we come to two other functions of government—providing a substitute for voluntary cooperation when it appears impossible to achieve, and providing for irresponsible individuals— the justification is much less clear-cut, because in a free society people should be able to take risks but should not be able to force others to pay the consequences. If the proper limitations of government action were observed, the government would not do many things it now does. We should not resort to government regulations until we have adequately explored the possibilities for coordinating our activities through voluntary means. If we understood the implications of our own values, we would not allow ourselves to be “front men” for values we oppose, merely because we are confused about the meaning of freedom and the legitimate role of government in a free society.