Politics & Policy

The Non-Debate

The shadows of supporters of President Trump at a rally in Las Vegas, Nev., September 20, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
On status games and the vacuous new populism

We don’t talk about the United Fruit Company as much as we used to. I miss that.

In the Eighties and Nineties, a conservative arguing with a progressive about practically anything had at his disposal a very handy heuristic: “Oh, yeah? Well what about the United Fruit Company in Guatemala?” If a left-leaning interlocutor went fruity within the first five minutes of a conversation that was not about Guatemala, bananas, or anything very closely related, then you knew he was a kook. Or, to put it more charitably, that he was not likely to prove persuadable by reason and facts.

“What about the United Fruit Company in Guatemala?” was my generation’s version of the old joke from the Soviet Union:

A Soviet official is proudly showing an impressive Moscow subway station to an American engineer. The visitor is so enchanted that he lingers for quite a time — during which no trains pass through. When he asks, “But where are the trains?” the Russian indignantly replies, “What about the Negroes in the South?”

The libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has helped to popularize the idea that ideology is at least partly about status — about the desire to see certain social groups rise or fall in their relative status rankings. People on the left who think of themselves as the “smart people and the virtuous people” resent the relatively high status of the people with a lot of money, and they organize their beliefs around lowering the status of that class. That helps to explain certain irrationalities one sees among progressives, i.e. their preference for policies that punish the wealthy for being wealthy over policies that help very poor people, their focus on “inequality” over absolute standards of living, etc. But it is only financial inequality that annoys them; other kinds of inequality, for instance inequality in intelligence or in academic achievement, receive less attention because they do not contribute to the progressives’ feelings of status envy.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that ideological disputes are, “in the strict sense, preposterous,” because ideologies are intellectual back-formations: “Far from a political ideology being the quasi-divine parent of political activity, it turns out to be its earthly stepchild,” he argues. “Instead of an independently premeditated scheme of ends to be pursued, it is a system of ideas abstracted from the manner in which people have been accustomed to go about the business of attending to the arrangements of their societies. The pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but of meditation upon a manner of politics. In short, political activity comes first and a political ideology follows after.”

That’s what the United Fruit Company rhetorical scheme is all about: It’s a way of rhetorically putting capitalism in its place by putting capitalists in their place. If anything, Professor Cowen and those who share his view may underestimate how much political ideology is, outside of professional and semiprofessional academic circles, a status game. Consider our current political discourse (which is the subject of my upcoming book) and the means by which it is conducted: Status is a stock, and social media is the platform for high-frequency trading in the status market.

I thought of the United Fruit Company when reading my friend J. D. Vance’s contribution to National Review’s very interesting in-house debate about the themes brought up by Tucker Carlson’s now-famous monologue, in which he argues that conservatives have been too deferential to commercial interests at the expense of the national interest. Vance offers an argument in a familiar mode: indictment. What about the pharmaceutical companies that make those opioids that so many Americans abuse? What about Apple having its Chinese operations knuckle under to Beijing? What about the marijuana producers pushing for broader legalization of their product?

So, then: What about those? It is true that the managers of businesses break the law like anybody else, and that they exploit such political and regulatory advantages as they can identify. And we prosecute them for law-breaking, though maybe not as much as we should, e.g., in the case of those who employ illegal aliens. One need not accept the vulgar “realism” of the fiduciary defense — the moral dodge that business executives have a positive moral obligation to be as ruthless as legally possible in pursuit of their shareholders’ financial interests — to wonder at the relevance of this assertion. Vance argues that pharmaceutical companies were not entirely forthcoming in their dealings with the Food and Drug Administration. Count me among those who are not very much surprised by this. But is it really the case that what the hillbillies he writes about need is an FDA with a heavier hand? How did that work out the last time we tried it? If memory serves, the federal effort to constrict the pharmaceutical opioid market was associated with an increase in the consumption of heroin.

I am open to the argument that we need a more intrusive regime of pharmaceutical regulation. If J. D. Vance wants to make that case, then he should make that case.

If, on the other hand, his project here — like Tucker Carlson’s sneering that the Republican agenda is to “make the world safe for banking” — is simply to adopt a rhetoric that lowers the status of a group that seems to him to get its way too often (and it seems to me that is what he is doing here, intentionally or not), then it almost certainly is not going to produce anything useful in terms of proposals for reform. In my back-and-forth with Michael Brendan Dougherty some time ago about his “Garbutt” thought experiment, I was frustrated by the same mushiness: 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. As Jim Geraghty points out in his contribution to the debate, there are thousands and thousands of manufacturing jobs going unfilled around the country. It seems to me that the most promising social policy would be one that seeks to connect those men with those jobs. A ham-fisted trade war with China is not the most obvious way to go about doing that.

Responding to Ben Shapiro’s observation that the spread of global capitalism had led to measurable positive outcomes around the world, Vance writes: “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.” But the more direct and obvious conclusion of that observation is that the local conditions Vance writes about are largely independent of market capitalism. If the same market forces that are coincident with longer and happier lives abroad are present in the communities Vance writes about, isn’t the more reasonable conclusion that the dysfunction is in those communities rather than in “capitalism,” however amorphously defined?

What evidence is there, if any, that it is our economy that produces the horrors that Vance describes so eloquently? The United States and El Salvador have about the same suicide rate; so do the United States and Finland. So do Belgium and India. So do Japan and Burkina Faso. Desperately poor Yemen has a suicide rate about one-third that of Russia, which is governed by economic nationalists much-admired by some in the American nationalist-populist camp. What should this tell us about the relationship between economic policy at the broad level and social dysfunction?

The critique of free trade and free markets offered by the nationalist-populist Right lacks intellectual rigor. Most of the time, it is an argument put forward with approximately the depth of the All in the Family theme song:

Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days,
And you know where you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.

The difference is, Archie Bunker sang that he “didn’t need no welfare state,” whereas his spiritual heirs frequently argue that we do not have one that is sufficient.

The nationalist critique also lacks much of anything that could charitably be described as an intelligent and plausible policy agenda. The actual agenda of the Trump administration has been a lot like the actual agenda of the Republican party for years: a conventional tax-reform bill, judges recommended by the Federalist Society, regulatory reform, etc. How the renegotiation of NAFTA is going to improve the lives of people afflicted by unemployment is not obvious.

Which deepens my suspicion that this is not a policy debate at all, but a status game. Certain people are thriving under globalization, certain people are not, we understand the losers as “our people,” and the outcome of this is ressentiment. Critiques that reduce the status of the winners are preferred to those that reduce the status of the losers. Toeing that line can lead to ridiculous outcomes, e.g. trying somehow to connect Bain Capital’s earnings to heroin overdoses in Arkansas.

Which brings me to Tucker Carlson’s monologue. I like and respect Tucker enormously, and have long admired him very much as a writer. That being said, his monologue was insipid, albeit insipid in the way that practically everything comparable on cable-news opinion shows is insipid. As Geraghty already has pointed out, it was full of plain factual errors — it simply is not the case the manufacturing has disappeared from the American economy — and its occasional descent into Starship Troopers–style propagandizing does not give me much hope for things to come. Mitt Romney in stark black-and-white over a Bain Capital sign, Tucker Carlson with the American flag projected behind him: I cannot imagine how a man of Tucker Carlson’s wit and intelligence participates in such risible pageantry without being embarrassed to death.

Tucker Carlson says that conservatives are operating with blinders, that “the idea that families are being crushed by market forces never seems to occur to them.” Perhaps it is the case that the possibility has occurred to them, and that the proposition has been examined and found to be untrue. Carlson mocks the idea that lower prices for consumer goods — “plastic garbage from China,” in the popular banal formulation — are in the interests of Americans of more modest means; I would like to suggest, in all charity and friendship, that those Americans who are literally counting their pennies could do with hearing a good deal less about the triviality of low prices from a born-rich multimillionaire who never had to literally count pennies. If you have ever known a family who — and this is a real-life example — used to dread receiving Christmas presents because they could not afford the postage to send a thank-you note, then you know what lower prices can mean to real people.

Which brings me to the obvious point of inquiry: What do the nationalists have to offer that is of more value than those lower prices?

Vance writes that when it comes to the problems of people in his community, we are told “we can’t talk about them, because it promotes victimhood.” Told by whom? Which problems are we not talking about? Opioid abuse? Unemployment and intergenerational poverty? Lack of agency? I am reminded of those claims that “We need to have a national conversation about x,” where x is one of those things that we never stop having a national conversation about.

I will get into this at greater length in my book, but Tucker Carlson’s argument that the state’s job is to see to our happiness, rather than to see to public order, represents a return to a political primitivism associated with the medieval period, when everyone, peasant and lord alike, knew his place and could be sure of his role in this kingdom and in the Heavenly Kingdom, a clockwork universe in which the great majority of people may have been miserable in absolute material terms but in which they had confidence in the fixity of the social order, and hence in the security of their own status. The emergence of primitive capitalism disrupted that order, and the emergence of global capitalism has, in a similar way, disrupted the postwar American social order.

As Yuval Levin and others have argued, it is nostalgia for that order — or our mythologized misrecollection of it — that animates much of the politics of our time, especially the frustrated and fearful populism whose partisans do not seem to understand that they can have a 1957 standard of living any time they choose, and that it can be had on the cheap.

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