Was Man Made For The Market?
In a long National Review essay, Michael Brendan Dougherty lets conservative critics of the Tucker Carlson monologue have it. MBD’s basic point is that yes, it’s important to talk about the role “personal responsibility” plays in establishing familial and social stability, and the conditions for prosperity. But saying that that’s the only thing we should talk about is deeply misguided.
It’s easy for conservatives to see this when liberals talk about how the only thing keeping poor people poor is the structure of the economy, ignoring the key role personal behavior and habits play. There is no economic structure in the world that is going to guarantee stability and prosperity for most people who don’t want to be self-disciplined in their work and personal habits. But an economic system that doesn’t reward virtuous behavior, and worse, makes it hard to raise families and live virtuous lives, is unjust. This is what far too many on the Right will not recognize. MBD starts by quoting the Prophet Micah pronouncing divine judgment on the elites of Israel, then sarcastically chastising the prophet for encouraging a “victim mentality.” He goes on:
I’m sure some readers are sick of hearing about Tucker Carlson’s monologue. But it has become the focus of a debate because Carlson pointed to the real molten fissure that is burbling sulfur on the American right. By doing so without ever mentioning the name, the character, or the political fortunes of Donald Trump, he allowed everyone to be more frank than usual. Carlson’s case is that elite-driven economic and social policy has destroyed the material basis for the family life, that our technocratic elite has the wrong measures of national health. Further, he argues, if the American Right doesn’t give up on its absentminded idolatry of “the market,” the country will quickly move toward socialism.
Bahnsen writes: “Carlson wrongly chooses to assign blame for the decisions people make to macroeconomic forces, instead of focusing on the decisions people make and the microeconomic consequences people absorb.”
To those who object to Carlson along these lines I would ask: At what point can we actually move on from the subject of personal responsibility and onto governance? Or, to put it another way, are there any political conditions in which the advice to be virtuous and responsible aren’t the best counsel you could give an individual?
It seems that it would be just as true to say these things in Russia during the post-Communist period, which saw soaring substance-abuse problems and plunging life expectancies. Then as now, the best advice you could give an individual Russian man was not to drink until his liver failed and he died. You could advise Russian women not to abort so many of their children. You could advise people to go back to church. All that would be salutary and more practically useful than having them wallow in elite failure. But none of that advice is inconsistent with political reflection and action for building a more flourishing society.
And our jobs at National Review and the Daily Wire include writing about and reflecting on political conditions. We are, all of us in this debate, dedicated to causes in which political effort and coordination is difficult. Would any of us really conclude that because the Russian state wasn’t forcing men at gunpoint to drink, Russia’s mortality rate had nothing to do with the corruption, venality, and misgovernance of the era? I doubt it.
Let’s move on to discuss another victim mentality — that of elites. Large financial institutions are excused for their failures. How can they help it, what with the animal spirits and all? French finds it insidious that Carlson seems to be teaching his viewers that some “them” are doing a disservice to “us.” Presumably he thinks this will weaken their incentive to take charge of their own life, live within their means, and advance. Does that not apply to elites as well?
What’s truly insidious is that the docile response of “us” Americans to unjust financial bailouts a decade ago is counted by “them” as a positive. It is a sign that when we discover once again in the future that these institutions are too big to fail, Americans will consent to be fleeced again to save them. Shapiro and French implicitly advocate that the market encourages self-discipline and industry. But, at the highest level, it actually subsidizes failure and irresponsibility.
Bloomberg tried to figure out the true cost of the bailouts. The government had lent, spent, or otherwise guaranteed $12.8 trillion. In other words, the banks and Wall Street got a New Deal, a Fair Deal, a Great Society, and a guaranteed income. That industry had its losses socialized with an ocean of money that makes federal welfare outlays look like a dribble near the Goldman Sachs urinal. The common man could use the bailouts to do the long arduous application for a new home refinance, often at unusual and abusive terms. A middleman bank would get paid by the government for creating and servicing that loan, too.
Where were the lectures about personal responsibility, the sacrosanct judgements of the market, and the consequent virtue of adapting in 2008? If conservatives believe that any number of American blue-collar industries are obsolete in a global economy, why didn’t we conclude the same about America’s financial industry a decade ago? Did anyone argue that America just can’t compete with the City of London and other financial capitals anymore? Did anyone say that the British just have the competitive advantage, and the subsidies required to sustain this native industry are just intolerable distortions of the market, funding the lifestyle of losers who should adapt to the gig economy or just do heroin if they can’t figure out what else to do with their lives?
No, of course not. Almost everyone in power has friends in that industry or hopes to work in it someday. I’ve gone to conferences of former politicians and their advisers. Nearly every one of them works for an NGO, a financial institution, or a firm that consults with financial institutions. We simply concluded that having a financial industry is strategically, economically, and politically vital for our country. We calculated that the social costs of allowing this industry to wind down or die were too deleterious to contemplate. And we saved it.
I can’t do justice to the piece by just quoting it. Read the whole thing. The final paragraph is the same lesson that FDR learned about what he needed to do to save capitalism.
The core question conservatives need to be asking themselves is: what is the institution most necessary to conserve? If the answer is “the family,” then the free market should be subordinate. As it stands now, too many conservatives view the needs of the family as subordinate to the needs of the market.
And too many liberals view the needs of the choosing individual as more important than the needs of the family. I wish the Left would have that argument within its own ranks.
UPDATE: Reader Old West writes:
When I played that Tucker Carlson monologue for my wife, she responded, “I can’t believe it! How long have we waited to hear someone say those things?” Well, a very long time. Trump gets close in his own way with a reptilian-brain approach, but we have been completely failed by the conservative “elites” who are supposed to be able to see and intelligently articulate such a vision. The fact that Carlson took heavy flak (as I knew he would) from doctrinaire conservatives is the reason that the GOP has already lost our money and has been working hard to lose our votes.
Mrs. Old West and I are the kind of people who these days overwhelmingly Democrat. We are 1%ers in both income and net worth, we have graduate degrees, we regularly travel to Europe and spend much of the year in one of the country’s “cultural capitals,” frequenting opera, symphony, and art museums.
Our flaws are that we come from humble backgrounds and we are devout Orthodox Christians to whom faith and family are the most important things in the world. We have been voting Republican all of our lives, although it keeps getting harder and harder. Sure, voting for McCain and Romney and W was a no-brainer when it comes to self-preservation as traditional Christians, and I don’t see us voting Democrat anytime soon given their aggressive anti-Christianity.
But it’s getting harder to make the case for expending the energy to vote GOP when religious liberty isn’t being preserved and when the GOP “elite” has such obvious disregard for the kind of people we grew up with and around and to whom we are still deeply connected. Sure, the Democrats have even more contempt for us, but you know, the GOP needs to offer a clear choice, and right now it isn’t offering one–not the politicians, and certainly not the conservative legacy media. Not for working and middle-class Americans.
As Carlson said in his monologue, the Republican Party is the only party that is going to be able to speak to and for the vast middle of what he refers to as “normal people.” The question is whether some Republican leader will see the light.
Today in my part of the world Georgia-Pacific announced that it was shutting down most of its operations at the local paper mill. Two-thirds of the work force is being let go. This is going to be a big blow to local folks, especially in my hometown, where men have worked at the mill for decades.
It’s not corporate greed, exactly. They made mostly office paper in that mill, and the shift to electronic documents in the economy has driven down demand. Still, the president of my home parish speaks the truth here:
“I can think of hundreds right off that work there so it’s kind of a gut punch to those of us up here,” says West Feliciana Parish President Kenny Havard. “There’s not a lot here to begin with so to lose something like this a terrible thing that will affect the entire region.”
Again, people didn’t stop using office paper because of corporate greed. GP is not relocating the mill to a foreign country. Still, a lot of families here in Trump country are going to be hurting hard. What does the Republican Party have to offer them? I’m not asking facetiously or rhetorically. Understand me here: I’m not saying the GOP should offer them all jobs. I am saying that the conservative party has to have something more serious to say about things like this than cheering for creative destruction and praising the wisdom of markets.