Politics & Policy

America Needs Virtue before Prosperity

Tucker Carlson (File photo: Gage Skidmore)
A response to Tucker Carlson

This week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson generated a veritable firestorm over his pitch for a new brand of American populism. In truth, his brand of populism isn’t particularly new — it’s a merger of Pat Buchanan–era paleoconservatism and Bush-era compassionate conservatism. It’s an attempt to rally government behind preferred conservative causes — rebuilding the family chief among them — rather than recognizing that government is typically an obstacle to those causes; it’s an attempt to fill a gap in the soul with a policy-based solution.

Here’s Carlson’s explanation of markets:

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.

This sounds far more like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren than it does like Ronald Reagan or Milton Friedman. That’s because the democratic socialist movement has a lot in common with the economic populism of the Right. The Marxist Left claims that human failings are the result of private property–based economic systems; therefore, private property–based systems must be destroyed. Social democrats like Sanders and Warren agree, but also acknowledge the inherent power of markets (although Sanders speaks more like a Marxist than a social democrat). Social democrats believe that shackling the power of the market to the redistributive and regulatory power of the state represents the best way forward. That’s why Sanders and Warren use the Nordic states as their models, rather than Cuba or the Soviet Union.

The populist Right largely agrees. Carlson explicitly states, along with Sanders and Warren, that voluntary decisions can amount to exploitation; he blames rich Americans for somehow, in unspecified fashion, convincing poorer Americans to conceive children out of wedlock. The free-market system, according to Carlson, has provided us with a lot of stuff, and “yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country.” Therefore, free markets are responsible for our empty souls as well as for our fuller fridges.

But that’s untrue. Typically, religious thinkers, as well as our founding fathers, recognized that prosperity could not exist without freedom, and that freedom could not exist without virtue. Free markets, in fact, were a result of certain virtuous underpinnings and fundamental conceptions about the value of individual human beings: Human beings were made in the image of God, had special value, were masters of their own labor, and could freely alienate that labor in voluntary transactions with others. Separating freedom from virtue would undercut freedom itself — we would inevitably begin to twist freedom to harm others as well as ourselves. As George Washington put it, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” James Madison agreed: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Without religion and morality we could, for a time, remain rich. But we would then begin to subject our freedoms to our own tyrannical impulses. In the founding view, the chief threat to freedom came from lack of virtue; perhaps the chief threat to virtue came from desire for material gain, disconnected from the virtuous social fabric. If we became addicted to stuff rather than to virtue, if we began to think that stuff could replace virtue, then we would inevitably undercut the basis of our own commercial republic.

Ironically, though, Carlson’s claim that material gain isn’t enough to provide happiness doesn’t lead him back to virtue, which would bolster additional freedom. It leads him to the same material solutions that undercut virtue in the first place.

It’s easy to reduce governmental debates to questions of resource allocation and governmental priorities. That’s essentially the fight between Left and Right in Europe: a fight between populists who wish to hijack government for their own ends and Leftists who wish to hijack government for theirs. But that was never the American discovery. America guaranteed us adventure, not happiness. To succeed in that adventure — to maintain the possibility of that adventure — required a social fabric built on virtue. If we fail to make virtuous decisions on an individual level, we can’t blame that on tariffs or payday lenders. And if we do, we’re part of the problem.

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