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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. [1] 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 monologu [2]e [2]. 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 [3]. 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. [1] 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. [4] 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: [5]

“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.”

The school system that depends on the mill for two-thirds of its property tax revenue is going to be walloped.  [6]

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.


108 Comments (Open | Close)

108 Comments To "Was Man Made For The Market?"

#1 Comment By Haigha On January 14, 2019 @ 9:30 am

If I could interject on the “make work” point, I find it useful to phrase it in terms of whether the project has a positive or negative net present value. That is, does it cost you more, in wealth and effort, than you get out of it? If so, it’s make-work. Profit is the excess of the wealth that comes out of the project over the wealth and effort that are put in. That’s what I take Brendan to mean: if the market won’t do it, that’s because *the gains from the project are not worth the effort*.

#2 Comment By Haigha On January 14, 2019 @ 9:43 am


This isn’t the place to flesh it all out, but there’s a heck of a lot of writing and thinking on the lessons of history with respect to the futility and moral hazard of government intervention. Again, start with Thomas Sowell.

As for Christianity, I’d point again to Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence for a good summary of this sort of thinking. The moral equality of individuals implies that no individual may justly control another, except in genuine defense of self or of others.

That glib summary will have to do for now.

#3 Comment By Haigha On January 14, 2019 @ 10:30 am

Matt, I’ll bet your favorite Marx Brothers bit is, “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” amirite? I kid.

I’m not really being modest with “middlebrow”. My own view is that a lot of what is considered “highbrow” isn’t really intellectually or aesthetically superior to what’s considered “middlebrow”, but merely adds a layer of weirdness or dissonance or needless complexity that serves to keep out the riff-raff. The remark attributed to Mark Twain (but which Google informs me he got from someone else) that “Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds” comes to mind. Dickens vs. Dostoyevsky is another good example.

As to your main point (the extent to which we get our thoughts and ideas from the arts), I’m not sure what I think. Personally, whether by training or nature or both, I’m too boring a writer to mix in too much that’s not directly on point. I suppose my half-formed thoughts are that (i) I like to think that my views are the result of reason applied to first principles, informed by experience and knowledge of history, while acknowledging the possibility that I’m actually just retrofitting principles to preferences, and (ii) given that the same works of art and literature are often cherished by people with wildly different ideologies, I’m inclined to be skeptical about the degree to which they’re really intrinsic to the process of thinking about things like political philosophy.

#4 Comment By Hound of Ulster On January 14, 2019 @ 11:23 am

I think the cardinal error here is on the part of the libertarian/libertarianish Right in viewing ‘the market’ as a morally neutral thing. It’s not, and capitalism, and the moral assumptions behind ‘free market’ ideology, make just as many moral claims on human nature as any metaphysical religious/belief structure, with many of those claims being at variance or even opposed to the moral claims made by Christianity. The whole notion of human beings as absolutely rational in their life-choices (spoiler alert:we aren’t computers), and the role of advertising/marketing imperatives in shaping culture (rigid gendering of toys did not begin until I was a small child in the 1980s being one example, because that made toy companies more money) are just two examples that jump out at me right now.

I also think, at our core, Americans have actually been highly materialistic since before the Founding, no matter our public protests to the contrary and ostentatious displays of public piety regardless of theological flavor. Everything that both Left and Right don’t like about American culture (many hippie/crunchy Left types are just as appalled by consumerism as any RadTrad) is rooted/excused in this deep and abiding materialism.

Once you fix that selfish materialism at the heart of the American experiment, I think quite a few of our economic, cultural, and political problems will heal themselves over time, as most people at bottom just want to be left alone by both state and market, only engaging with either when they need them. But how do you do that in society and state founded on the highly materialistic ideals of the Enlightenment?

#5 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On January 14, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

Haigha say:
If I could interject on the “make work” point, I find it useful to phrase it in terms of whether the project has a positive or negative net present value. That is, does it cost you more, in wealth and effort, than you get out of it? If so, it’s make-work. Profit is the excess of the wealth that comes out of the project over the wealth and effort that are put in. That’s what I take Brendan to mean: if the market won’t do it, that’s because *the gains from the project are not worth the effort*.

That is a fine definition, though it’s not the traditional one I’ve heard which is basically work for no purpose. Under your definition infrastructure and basic science research are often not “make work” projects while they are as Brendan described it. Calculating the present value of long term projects with low information on probable rate of return is very difficult and businesses will always shy away from that, particularly ones with boards that value short term profits over long term. There are lots of examples of giant infrastructure projects and pure science research projects that were extremely “profitable” and many that turned out to be boondoggles. I personally suspect our country would be substantially less great if we had left all of those projects to private enterprise.

#6 Comment By Turmarion On January 14, 2019 @ 1:36 pm

Haigha: The moral equality of individuals implies that no individual may justly control another, except in genuine defense of self or of others.

Well, nice in theory, but as Adams said, if men were angels, there’d be no need for government. I can’t think of any conceivable type of society that doesn’t have at least some coercion. Even hunter-gatherers are well known to use shaming, peer pressure, taboos, and other methods to get everyone to work together for the good of the tribe. Anyone who’s lived in a small town or close-knit community knows that informal means of control can be just as effective as someone from the gubmint arriving with guns.

Any kind of government, be it ours or a tribal chieftain, will sometimes have to get recalcitrant people to do things they don’t want to do for the greater good; and not just in the case of “genuine defense of self or others”. Just like Marxism, libertarianism (big or little “l”) makes excessively idealistic assumptions about human nature–the former, that we’re naturally unselfish, and the latter, the people functioning out of selfish motivations will never have a deleterious effect on society, and if they do, why we can just persuade them. Nice theory, but it never works in the real world.

#7 Comment By Haigha On January 15, 2019 @ 9:26 am

Turmarion, I don’t think that quote (which is from Federalist 51, by Madison) cuts they way you want it to. Here’s the context:

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Madison is making a libertarian argument: that government is itself a reflection of human nature, and that therefore it has to be controlled and limited.

Anyway, nothing I wrote implies any issue with shaming, peer pressure, or taboos (cf. our discussions on homosexuality and sex roles, where you were taking the anti-taboo position).

And as for the “real world”, we essentially had libertarianism for the first 150 years of the United States. England had something very like libertarianism for quite a while as well. Seemed to work quite well.

#8 Comment By Rick Steven D. On January 15, 2019 @ 4:14 pm


In the immortal words of Creem rock critic Rick Johnson, the one sentence reply he made to a profanity-laced-violence-threatening letter from Joan Jett after he trashed The Runaways debut album in 1976: “Go sit on a snow cone.”