The Health of Nations

Tucker Carlson at the 2018 Student Action Summit (Gage Skidmore)
Conservatives should heed Tucker Carlson’s advice. We shouldn’t assume that what is good for markets is good for all of us.

Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology.

There is, by many on the right, an effort to sing the praises of market capitalism without acknowledging the tensions between our pro-market principles and everything else. I respect Ben Shapiro a great deal, but I found this paragraph in his response to Carlson curious:

Supply and demand economics has powered most of the world’s human beings out of extreme poverty, and led to the richest society in human history. It has allowed us to live longer, in bigger houses, in more comfort. It has meant fewer dead children and more living parents. If we’ve blown that advantage, that’s our own fault. Traditional conservatives recognized that the role of economics is to provide prosperity — to raise the GDP. The role of a social fabric and a value system is to provide meaning.

To put a particularly fine point on it: Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.” The market is not a Platonic deity, floating in the sky and imposing goodness and prosperity from on high. It is the creation of our choices, our laws, and our democratic process. We know, for instance, that pornography has radically altered how young boys perceive their relationships with women and sex, and that the pornography industry has acquired a lot of wealth in the process of creating and distributing that content. Just last month, we learned that a Chinese entity created the first gene-edited baby, using a technology developed in the United States. Some company, here or there, will eventually create a lot of prosperity by using this gene-editing technology (called CRISPR) in an unethical way, quite literally playing God with the most sacred power in the universe — the creation of human life. In the past few years, it has become abundantly clear that Apple — despite self-righteously refusing to cooperate with American security officials — has willingly complied with the requirements of the Chinese surveillance state, even as China builds concentration camps for dissidents and religious minorities. And, as Carlson mentioned, there are marijuana companies pushing for legalization, though we know from the Colorado experience that legalization increases use, and from other studies that use is concentrated among the lower class, causing a host of social problems in the process.

All of these entities are doing what the market demands, and in some ways, it’s hard to blame them. But shouldn’t our laws and policy make life harder for them? Or should conservatives cry “small government” every time someone suggests an intervention and stick our collective head in the sand, pretending there’s no relationship between market actors and the civil society we say we believe in?

Of course, the recognition that corporate interests might not always align with civil society’s interests comes from the patron saint of capitalism, Adam Smith. We simply must develop the intellectual ability to understand the way in which law and policy drive outcomes in our society besides creating bad incentives for poor people. Sometimes they create bad incentives for the rich. Sometimes they allow the incentives that already exist to run roughshod over our communities and families. The market, as Smith understood, is merely a tool — a powerful tool, yes. But if we care about the flourishing of our society, and if we value ends besides a larger GDP, then we have to do the difficult work of balancing the competing demands of our values. Instead, many of our intellectuals simply pretend there is no competition — that what is good for markets is good for the rest of our nation. This is a recipe for boring thinking and bad policy.

This is not to say that all the fault lies with the failure of government to act in some way or another. Growing up in a household that was, by nearly every metric, “disadvantaged,” I loathed the cultural signal that told me, in essence: “Because you are poor, you have no agency. Because you are disadvantaged, you are a victim of the system, and you might as well give up.” So I understand and agree with the premise of David French’s response to Carlson, but having spent some time with Carlson, I don’t think he would disagree with the importance of emphasizing resilience even in the face of adversity.

There is, of course, a tension between acknowledging adversity and fighting to overcome it. It is a tension I’ve struggled with in my own life, and one that runs through my book Hillbilly Elegy. We can and should promote a cultural sensibility that values agency and personal responsibility. But if the conservative answer to people’s real problems is “we can’t talk about them, because it promotes victimhood,” then we are fighting a battle that we both deserve to lose and will lose.

J. D. Vance is the author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
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