Politics & Policy

Personal Responsibility Is No Substitute for Political Reflection

Continuing the debate on conservatism, markets, and virtue

Hear, O ye princes of Jacob, and ye chiefs of the house of Israel: Is it not your part to know judgment, you that hate good, and love evil: that violently pluck off their skins from them, and their flesh from their bones? Who have eaten the flesh of my people, and have flayed their skin from off them: and have broken, and chopped their bones as for the kettle, and as flesh in the midst of the pot. —Micah 3:1-3

Sad! The prophet Micah was preaching a victimhood politics to the Israelites, blaming the shadowy elites: the supposedly unfaithful priests, opportunistic prophets, and greedy “princes of the House of Jacob.” He even says that the whole nation is going to be destroyed because of their vicious self-seeking. Doesn’t he know that preaching this fire-and-brimstone stuff to respectable people never helped a single lazy wretch? Micah resents people who are making a success of the new political arrangements in the Levant. He longs fruitlessly for a past Davidic monarchy that, like America’s manufacturing jobs, will never come back. And when you think about it, there are some real anti-Semitic overtones to it all, denouncing the “chiefs of the house of Israel” and all that. You really hate to see a 6th-century b.c. text that rhymes with the worst rhetoric of the 20th century a.d. Hopefully the American Right rejects this nonsense.

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.

My colleagues David French and David Bahnsen, along with Ben Shapiro, argued forcefully against him. The themes are remarkably similar. Carlson says true things about the state of family life, they admit. But he is encouraging a victim mentality. French complains of the insidious way that populism “focuses on the political at the expense of the personal.” That it teaches people to labor for what’s out of their control (public policy, elites) at the expense of what’s in their control (their personal affairs). Shapiro argues more broadly that virtue (happy marriages, self-control) precedes prosperity, implying that no policy fix to increase incomes will, of itself, decrease the rate of drug use, or increase the rates of marriage or legitimacy in childbearing.

While French, Bahnsen, and Shapiro all variously object to Carlson’s jeremiads about elites, and his iconoclasm when it comes to the “free market,” nobody disputed that, as Carlson said, sometimes private-equity outfits do take advantage of our laws to extract value from existing companies for shareholders, charging fees while passing on pension burdens to the public. Also, nobody argued against Carlson’s contention that, absent a dramatic effort to change the conditions for America’s middle and working class, the country will turn to socialism. I found these omissions curious.

As a rebuttal, both Shapiro and French deployed statistics showing that American manufacturing production has stayed relatively steady, and they attributed any falloff in employment to automation. But in this same post–Cold War period, other industrial powers are seeing their manufacturing output grow. In other words, American manufacturing isn’t just employing fewer people than it used to — it’s falling behind and losing competitiveness overall.

First, however, let’s talk about the “free market” and “government interventionism.” Carlson argued that the policies that favor certain forms of wealth creation for the elite, and that disfavor those of working people, are not “the free market,” but the product of laws and decisions made by Congress. Carlson said:

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.

Carlson’s critics have sometimes proven his point. In a response at his own site, Ben Shapiro retorts:

Carlson seems to attribute America’s troubles not to government interventionism, but to government non-interventionism. Typically, conservatism has argued that if you live in a free society in which you have not been targeted unfairly, your failures are your own. For Carlson, however, the very freedom of our society leads to the unhappiness so many of us feel. Carlson seems to suggest that our system itself is to blame for individual shortcomings, and that collective restructuring of free institutions will alleviate and cure those shortcomings. This is simply not reflective of conservatism, or of founding ideology.

Shapiro writes that “the economic systems that allow families to thrive are the same economic systems that allow all human beings to thrive: free markets.” And that Carlson “blames both the welfare state and trade policy — as though tariffs aren’t merely an indirect form of wealth redistribution.”

Imagine I had written a long screed about government waste in spending. In that screed I cited outdated defense programs meant to share the wealth among vulnerable congressional districts, and I railed against the stupid waste of having all federal projects that use computers still needing to be certified as “Y2K compliant.”

And then a group of writers wrote a comprehensive response defending this waste and injustice by saying that “self-government has produced the best, most accountable governments in human history.” And that the results are just self-government in action, and if I don’t like it, I can throw in with the Marxists. These references to self-government would simply be a rhetorical trick for avoiding debate. Frankly, many of Carlson’s critics deploy “free markets” in just this way. And I find it as useful as I would defending Chinese economic arrangements with reference to “Xi Jinping thought.”

Carlson’s critics don’t sharply distinguish between markets that operate under just laws shaped by democratic publics, and those that are subject to constant government intervention and interference by social engineers. If China has a mercantilist policy aimed at up-skilling its work force, and laws that favor the capture, growth, and protection of its own high-tech industries at our expense, is our trade with them really free? May I remind those in this discussion that early in the 1990s William F. Buckley Jr. opposed free trade with China precisely for the baleful economic and political effects of treating a Communist country like China as if it were a free one like Canada? He came around to freer trade later, but his original skepticism has been better vindicated by events. Was he a populist who sounded just like Bernie Sanders?

Shapiro writes that populists on the right largely agree with the Marxist Left that “human failings are the result of private property–based economic systems; therefore, private property–based systems must be destroyed.” The traditional conservative position on “markets” has always been one of guarded appreciation for private property, mixed with a little suspicion for commerce and wage slavery. In fact, the traditional conservative position regards ownership of goods as a form of trusteeship and tends to despise those “owners” who greedily extract all the value from a resource in the present if it destroys its future value for posterity.

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.

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I  agree that a victim mentality isn’t helpful. A victim mentality doesn’t even help most actual victims. It wouldn’t help most political prisoners held unjustly. They, too, benefit spiritually from self-control (and religion)! My fear is that we are now so self-conscious about legitimizing a victim mentality that we have decided that justice is hardly worth pursuing. We trust an invisible hand so thoroughly that we don’t ask whether the laws and policies that govern trade, employment, and markets are prudent. We are becoming as glib as those who say “Don’t like abortion? Then don’t have one.”

Bahnsen disclaims the idea of merely pulling up on one’s bootstraps. “I don’t believe our rejection of a mentality of victimization can happen in isolation,” he writes. “A healthy (and happy) society requires mediating institutions — family, church, civic organizations, communities — that serve as necessary vehicles for virtuous living.”

What about democracy or republican government? Are those not institutions that play a role in self-governance? My question to Bahnsen would be this: If mediating institutions such as family, church, and civic organizations are important, should it not trouble us that many of modern capitalism’s defenders give capitalism praise precisely because it tends to efface and render obsolete the authority of those institutions? Should it not trouble us that many libertarian allies praise capitalism in the same terms that Marx describes it in The Communist Manifesto: as an engine of destruction for social bonds?

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.

But populism isn’t just fed by the licensed and taxpayer-insured misbehavior of financial institutions. It’s also fueled by more common forms of avarice and exploitation. French shares an anecdote about his father-in-law who left the chronically poor regions of Tennessee’s mountains, joined the Marines, and bettered himself through college and a good marriage to a Christian woman. God bless him. But I have another anecdote.

Not too far from my home is a college that hopes to “serve” those who don’t normally have access to a college education. This college is accredited, and its enrollment benefits from a massive amount of outdated pro-college advertising and propaganda. It profits from those false “facts” about how a college education leads to 1 million more dollars in income over a lifetime. It also benefits from the curious preferment and non-discrimination given to government-backed student loans, a type of debt that is almost impossible to discharge. Its typical student has a low-wage job in a service industry. One-third of the students graduate. And the vast majority of them do not see any change in their career path. They go back to their service jobs. But they are better-educated than they were before! The teachers and administrators are all civic-minded people who believe that education is valuable in itself. They don’t look like vampires. But do the students know that their education has no market value? Do they realize that this system transmutes their low-five-figure salaries into their own personal debt, a debt that is harder to escape, legally speaking, than a spouse or even a child? Do they realize that this debt finances the much higher five- and six-figure salaries for their teachers and administrators?

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At this point, I can hear my colleague Kevin D. Williamson’s voice piping in. Williamson thinks that Carlson and his defenders — people like J. D. Vance and myself — are playing a “status game.” We’re badmouthing the suits and singing paeans to the working man, and my colleague can’t quite see the point. My response to this accusation is to write to him: Yes, guilty as charged.

I happen to think that good conservative government involves reconciling the diverse interests of your society toward the common good. Status goes with power. Our working theory is that the interests of the vulnerable middle- and working-class have been lately ignored long enough by the political class of this country. The results have been declining labor-force participation of prime-age men, massive problems of substance abuse, lack of marriage, and the election of Donald Trump. Carlson’s thesis is that if we continue to go on this way, the result will be socialism. Any attempt by Carlson, Vance, or myself to get the interests of this class of people addressed will, by definition, involve raising their low status.

This is a tautology. There is no lack of agency involved either. Many of these men have responded rationally to the fact that Democrats began to stop advocating for their interests a quarter-century ago: They are entering the opposing party and voting for candidates who would advocate for them.

Williamson writes:

Even assuming that all of Dougherty’s fine-tuning of the moral standing and status of his various subjects is carried out with superhuman accuracy: What then? What is it our gentle new breed of nationalists would like to see done?

Because if the problem we are trying to address is the situation of low-income, unemployed, and marginally employed white men in rural and semi-rural areas, none of the tut-tutting about the moral failings of this or that business leader in New York City or Palo Alto changes the fact that we have two choices: We help these men to become self-sufficient, or we maintain them in welfare dependency indefinitely.

It’s good to see Williamson move on to Lenin’s question: What is to be done? The first step is acknowledging the problem. That is what Williamson objects to when he belittles social and political description as “fine-tuning” and “status games.” But if we can admit that Buckley may have been right to object to George H. W. Bush’s trade policies with China, then we can get on to admitting that perhaps policymakers fooled themselves when they believed that there is no difference between producing potato chips and microchips. Not only because it is dangerous to give a Communist geopolitical rival that kind of access to your security supply chain. But also because, unlike potato farmers, people who develop skills and knowledge in a computer-chip industry often go on to found other companies. Just a decade after Chinese firms were contracted to assemble iPhones, China has developed its own powerful tech companies. We can admit that the elite theories about transitions to a service economy, the theories that were driving policy changes and dulling trade negotiators to the danger at hand, were wrong. Let’s not compound the error in the future.

Once that’s done, we can get on to more ambitious proposals. Williamson wants to see these marginal men matched up to the many unfilled, well-paying, industrial jobs that do exist in America. So do I — but I have an odd intuition that falling fertility rates over the last two generations have destroyed the primary means through which men find these type of jobs: their extended kin networks. Be that as it may, we might consider Oren Cass’s suggestion of labor reform that would allow German-style worker co-ops that have the ability to train men and match them to opportunities. Doing this would involve another status game, as it might mean thinking about this issue more and serving the interests of our bloated university system less. So be it.

I don’t think the different sides of this debate are irreconcilable. Shapiro comes close to a truth, and to agreement with Carlson and myself, when he expounds on the Founders’ classical conception of threats to the polis. He writes that they recognized that “the chief threat to virtue came from desire for material gain, disconnected from the virtuous social fabric.”

I couldn’t agree more. Meanwhile the crisis of responsibility that Bahnsen talks about belongs also to self-seeking elites. And he recognizes that. One of the great benefits of having nation-states rather than empires is that nation-states help bind metropolitan elites to their local country. As the populists see it, the post–Cold War period has included an attempt at elite secession from their moral, economic, and political duties to their countrymen. That is why there is a curious internationalization to the split in Western politics. One on side, people in the elite across the West root for the post–Cold War status quo, for the European Union, for Macron and Merkel. On the other side, people root for the survival of nation-states, for Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.

I also agree with Robert VerBruggen that some social changes of the last 50 years are unprecedented in their effect, and difficult to address. But, again, if I’m hearing French, Bahnsen, and Shapiro correctly, the difficulty of our circumstances is no excuse for elites to fall into self-pity and lassitude. This is our problem set, let’s go about solving it.

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One last anecdote. In 2017, I attended a behind-closed-doors conference of political elites, joining former party leaders and serious think-tank personalities from across Europe and America. They were trying to cope with Brexit and Trump. They tried to talk through big-picture issues: China, automation, and populism among them. One participant, a perfectly civil-minded woman, in her way, said that it was inevitable that automation would make a substantial plurality of men redundant in the economy. She said that those who were economically useful would continue to become fabulously wealthy, and we would re-employ the useless men in labor-intensive industries. “They’ll make overpriced ‘artisanal’ banana bread and we’ll pretend to love it,” she said, making scare quotes with her fingers. In other words, her response to the social crisis roiling the West is “Let us eat their cake.”

Conservatives need to stop treating America’s economic policies as sacrosanct in theory and blameless in effect. It’s fine to tell your neighbor to get his hair cut and show up on time to his job interview. But, as people who talk about politics and concern ourselves with the commonwealth, we need to work for the creation of a free market that contributes to rather than hinders the formation of strong families and communities. If we don’t do this, Micah’s prophecies will hold just as true for America. And if we get the politics of Venezuela in return, all the sermons about victimhood culture and self-pity will be repeated in mocking tones back to those who offered them.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to better reflect William F. Buckley Jr.’s evolving position on trade with China.


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