Milton Friedman is no philosopher. If you try to extract a definition of freedom from what he is saying, you will be very frustrated. He gives several definitions of freedom, all of them inadequate and somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, freedom is the ability to choose among what’s available. So I have the freedom to choose whether I want to buy a Swiss or a Japanese watch, and, according to Freidman, this is all the freedom I need. Woe to the government if it tries to limit my ability to buy the kind of watch I want. Freedom is my ability to realize my desire. He lacks an understanding that an individual’s desire can be manipulated and is not an article of perfect freedom.
He has no concept that freedom could mean the ability to determine what’s available. I do not have the freedom to take a bullet train to San Francisco because there is no bullet train to San Francisco. The decision to create such a thing would be a collective decision about how to use collective resources. The idea of a collective freedom or that freedom could result from a collective decision lies outside the realm of Milton Friedman’s rather crabbed imagination.
Freedom, for Friedman, has only to do with individual action. That is the meaning of "My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin." For this reason, he claims that freedoms conflict, but he is wrong. Desires conflict, not freedoms. Absolute freedom is impossible only because individual desires conflict. Apparently, collective freedom and collective will is not included in his concept of absolute freedom. If unlimited scope of individual action is freedom, as Friedman believes, then everyone wants it, but not everyone has it. My desire not to have my home foreclosed upon conflicts with the bank’s desire to foreclose upon it. I cannot exercise my freedom because I do not have the resources to forestall the bank. You cannot choose between a Swiss watch and a Japanese watch if you cannot afford a watch to begin with. Freedom is only for those who have the resources necessary for making choices. If you do not have resources, you are off the radar and need not be considered as a real agent in a real system.
Since true freedom, for Friedman, is only about individual choice and requires individual resources, economic freedom is the only important consideration for Friedman. The lack of freedom of those who lack resources is insignificant in his impoverished imagination. So he makes the astounding statement that “anyone is free to set up an enterprise,” anyone who has the money, that is. (Mitt Romney solved this problem in true Friedmanesque fashion by telling college students that if they didn’t have the money to start a business, they should simply borrow it from their parents.) His main question becomes how to limit the scope of action of those who own enterprises. Since competition is a natural limit on that scope of action, there is no need for government to limit or regulate enterprises, and any attempt to do so is an attack on freedom by the (gasp!) collective. Similarly, since people without resources are irrelevant to his system, any attempt by government to help or protect such people is an inexcusable attack on economic freedom.
His idea that competitive capitalism “promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power” is a chimera, a delusion, because he has no conception that political power is a way of managing collective action and collective freedom. For him, any collective action is an unnecessary and destructive limit on the economic freedom of those who control resources. For Friedman, economic freedom means wielding economic power. Similarly, political freedom means the ability to wield political power. That political power tends to support those with economic power is, for Friedman, entirely accidental. Those without resources are simply insignificant. Their lack of political power is irrelevant to his system. The great irony is that Milton Friedman, the apostle of economic freedom, was the favorite of any number of Latin American dictators who murdered thousands in the name of economic freedom. They used their political power to render those without resources insignificant, i.e., dead, in the service of preserving the economic power of those with resources.