In the Broadway musical Chess, KGB agent Alexander Molokov rejects the West’s choice of consumerism and individual choice over communal solidarity: “It’s the weak who believe tawdry untruths about freedom. Trinkets in airports, sufficient to lead them astray.” One can hear echoes of Molokov’s critique in Tucker Carlson’s recent series of monologues on Fox News.
One might be less concerned about Tucker’s cranky nostalgia for Archie Bunker’s America if he weren’t part of a growing strain of American conservatism that is suspicious of — if not hostile to — free-market capitalism.
Most prominent, of course, is President Trump, whose attitude to the free market has long been indifferent at best. Simply consider his opposition to free trade; his calls to regulate businesses he doesn’t like, such as Amazon and Facebook; his support for subsidies in favored industries such as farming and manufacturing.
But increasingly Trump is joined by a chorus of populist conservatives who sound a lot more like Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley Jr. Ann Coulter, for instance, has entertained AOC’s call for a 70 percent tax rate, suggested a wealth tax, and criticized corporate tax cuts.
Coulter and Tucker, of course, are provocateurs. But it’s harder to excuse serious conservatives such as Oren Cass, Henry Olsen, Michael Brendan Dougherty, J. D. Vance, and Ross Douthat, among others. All these thinkers have written favorably of government policies to regulate the economy. Douthat, for instance, calls on conservatives to embrace government action to secure what he calls a “family wage” for Americans. In a similar vein, Oren Cass suggests that the U.S. embrace German-style labor regulation and welfare payments to low-wage workers. And several conservative scholars have recently called for the government to establish universal family leave.
I’m going to leave to others the debate about virtue and whether markets have contributed to the breakdown of morality, as Tucker warns. I will note, however, that those good old days weren’t all that moral if measured by how we treated women, minorities, and others. Nor should we assume that the coerced conformity actually represented some higher form of virtue.
But Tucker and his fellow populists also get the economics wrong. It is doubtful that Carlson or the others really want to return to the standards of living of, say, the 1950s. After all, it’s not just the elites who are better off today. Yes, the rich have gotten richer, but in many ways it’s the poor and the working class that have gained the most from the economic growth of the last half-century.
And it’s not just a question of the poor being able to buy cheap things, as Tucker says. By the end of the 1950s, the U.S. poverty rate stood at 22 percent, far higher than at any point during the depths of the Great Recession. Life expectancies for both men and women back then were ten years shorter than they are today. Culture and entertainment were far less accessible to the average American. Alcoholism was rampant. And, yes, things cost more. “Our old LaSalle” may have run great, but a car cost some 45 percent of an average worker’s annual income.
Rather, the populists seem to believe that government intervention, regulation, and restrictions on individual choice would result in the same prosperity we have today, but without the disruption and “creative destruction,” in Schumpeter’s famous phrase.
But growth and disruption are inseparable. Improvements in living standards come about through the experimentation that the market economy allows. Entrepreneurs pour their efforts into satisfying their customers and are rewarded if successful. This virtuous circle cannot occur when the government is picking winners and losers.
Equally important, the populists misread the politics as well. Yes, the elites often manipulate public policy for their own benefit. But their actions are seldom pro-market. When the government picks winners and losers, who do you think is likely to lose? Markets don’t care if you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female. Politicians and bureaucrats do.
Throughout history, free markets have been the great levelers. Early on, commerce was attacked for allowing mere tradesmen to rise above the entitled aristocracy.
In my new book, The Inclusive Economy, I show dozens of examples of how elites try to preempt free markets in ways that hurt the disadvantaged: zoning laws that lock low-income workers out of better neighborhoods; school systems that are designed more for the benefit of teachers and administrators than for parents and children; occupational-licensing, occupational-zoning, and minimum-wage laws that prevent the poor from getting a toehold on the economic ladder. Not one of these measures is about “worshiping the market.” Even protectionism, often cheered by populists, usually benefits favored industries at the expense of those without as much influence.
By turning against markets, Tucker, Trump, and their fellow populists are turning against the single best tool for improving the lives of poor and working-class Americans.