Economy & Business

Marco Rubio’s Bizarre Turn against Capitalism

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2019 (Erin Scott/Reuters)
How would ‘common-good capitalism’ reduce suicide, make work more meaningful, or induce more Americans to go to church?

Not even socialist Bernie Sanders could have unfurled a more exhaustive vilification of the market economy than Marco Rubio did in his recent Catholic University speech defending “common-good capitalism.”

If you think I’m exaggerating, note that the former Tea Partier now blames capitalism for stifling innovation, undermining religious institutions, stripping workers of their dignity, corroding good will among men, and driving childlessness, hopelessness, and suicides.

Rubio begins his lament by quoting Pope Leo XIII, a late-19th-century critic of socialism and laissez-faire economics, intimating that both systems are comparably problematic. Leo argued that the ultimate goal of society should be to “make men better” by providing opportunity to attain the “dignity” that comes from work, ownership, and raising a family.

Neither the market nor the state, I’m afraid, can make you a better man. Still, Pope Leo might have been quite happy with the results of the Industrial Revolution, by far the greatest poverty-destroying, dignity-creating turning point in human history.

In 1907, the year Leo died, around 60 percent of the American work force toiled in factories and farms, with few options. Today that number is under 10 percent. There’s certainly nothing undignified about factory or agricultural work — today those jobs can be quite high-tech, in fact — but for most of our existence it meant menial, monotonous, and dangerous work for little pay.

As did most labor. By any quantifiable measure, the work force is richer, healthier, and safer today. Do individuals find more “dignity” in their work? Well, it depends, I suppose. There are those who find absolutely no dignity in politics, for instance, and others who find it quite laudable. What we do know is that economic growth has afforded Americans more choices in more fields with fewer barriers. A record 16 million Americans are self-employed today; for the most part, pursuing careers that interest them. More workers telecommute, and most of them are happy. More American work in cerebral and white-collar fields because of rising levels of educational attainment. We have more free time. We have more creative work. We have more disposable income. We have corporations offering benefits that help families, such as parental leave.

Economic freedom benefited the worker far more materially than job guarantees ever did. Every time I hear a politician romanticizing the lunch-pail union-protected manufacturing jobs of the 1970s, I can’t help but wonder if they ever envision their own children pursing a dignified lifetime position on a factory line somewhere. Somehow I doubt it.

Still, Rubio embraces Oren Cass’s technocratic notions, by which policymakers spend less time focusing on economic growth and more on social-engineering jobs that comport with Oren Cass’s worldview. Like all progressive economic schemes, this one isn’t compatible with human nature or reality.

Rubio blames “big corporations” — middle-sized and small corporations are a bit too easy to humanize — for allegedly destroying the best aspects of American life. These institutions “have become vehicles for shareholders and banks to assert claims to cash flows, rather than engines of productive innovation.”

I’ll save you tens of thousands of words listing the life-saving, comfort-affording, technologically mind-blowing innovations of the past 30 to 40 years and note that companies benefit society most when they invest capital in worthwhile ideas and produce products and offer services that consumers, rather than think-tankers, desire. As Rubio explains it, though, “businesses have a right to make a profit, but they also have an obligation to reinvest those profits productively for the benefit of the workers and the greater society.”

Corporations have no such obligation, because, like the vacuous “common good,” a free nation has no genuine consensus on what constitutes “a greater society.” Barack Obama believed that a greater society required taxpayers to subsidize solar-panel factories and “free” contraception. Does Rubio agree? Most corporations already give back. Once we empower politicians to decide what they must give back and what types of “dignified” jobs they must create and what percentage of the profits they can invest, we’re not only ideologically surrendering to the Left’s most retrograde economics ideas; we’re going to create more cronyism and rent-seeking.

What we wouldn’t be doing is fill the pews.

Rubio argues that an economy with a 3.7 percent unemployment rate, one that has tripled the GDP in the past 30 years, is at fault for “a collapse in churchgoing and community institutions; a decline in marriage, childbirth, and life expectancy; and an increase in drug dependency, suicides, and other deaths of despair.”

Surely Rubio is aware that European nations that foster “common good” though economic policy have experienced even starker declines in churchgoing, marriage, and childbirth? Surely he knows that many of the most devout countries in the world are also among the poorest, offering some of the most undignified work imaginable.

Surely he knows that the troubling rise in suicides and opioid addiction, and the recent decline in life expectancy, are still just blips in a positive 30-year trend that was realized during the time frame that he demeans as a disaster. For millions of consumers, advances in medical technology and pharmaceuticals, most often conceived by the “giant corporations” Rubio maintains produce nothing worthwhile these days, will help his countrymen live far less painful and more productive lives.

Capitalism, of course, is not without pain. Sadly, there will always be people displaced by increased productivity and advancing technology. We can’t ignore them, and there is nothing wrong with the state figuring out ways to ease that transition. But it’s cheap demogoguery, especially for a politician who knows better, to treat creative destruction as a unique occurrence. Yet here we are.

In the end, the only tangible idea that Rubio embraces in his speech, other than punishing “big corporations” for failing to invest in the way he and Chuck Schumer deem best, is to expand the federal per-child tax credit. Great. That still leaves unexplained how “common-good capitalism” is going to curb the spike in suicides, create more meaningful work, or entice more Americans to go back to church.

Or, for that matter, how free-market capitalism ever dissuaded them in the first place.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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