Economy & Business

There’s More to Life Than Liberty and Robbery

Senator Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 29, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Senator Rubio is exploring how levers of policy affect market conditions and behaviors, a discussion that is stretching the Right’s traditional vocabulary.

Deep in the bowels of the National Archives, I gather, lie America’s true founding documents. On display for the public are namby-pamby versions spouting hokey pablum about “the People . . . institut[ing] new Government . . . to effect their Safety and Happiness” and adopting a Constitution to “promote the general Welfare.” Those are the fakes that Nicolas Cage gets conned into stealing.

Kevin D. Williamson is not so easily fooled. In his twopart reply to Senator Marco Rubio’s remarkable speech and subsequent National Review essay on “common-good capitalism,” Williamson explains, “The U.S. government exists to see to the liberty of the American people. That is it. That is its only reason for being.” He avers, “This account isn’t fringe libertarianism — it’s right there in the founding documents.”

Extraordinary that Thomas Jefferson wrote prose so clunky as “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men . . . are endowed by their creator with just one unalienable Right, liberty, that’s it,” and that the framers of the Constitution thought sufficient a preamble reading simply, “We the People of the United States, in Order to protect liberty, and nothing else whatsoever, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” Extraordinary, too, that this reality has been hidden from historians and legal scholars for so long. Someone should alert our courts that the framers were just kidding about clauses 4 and 8 of Article I, Section 8. Bankruptcies require the seizure and reallocation of private property, after all, while patents obstruct transactions between consenting adults.

Still, value can be plumbed from the silliness that Senator Rubio has elicited. He is exposing precisely how limited right-leaning policy discourse has become and the challenge this poses for even grappling with the kinds of issues he wants to raise. Standing opposite “liberty,” we get “robbery.” Williamson believes that Rubio wants to “be . . . the bandit, taking control of other people’s property”; “strip shareholders of control of their own property,” which “is robbery”; “redefine away the property rights of millions of Americans”; “limit . . . property rights”; and “run Apple or Facebook or Ford.”

Paraphrasing, he sums up Rubio as advancing “the same old might-makes-right politics: ‘We want to take control of what you have and use it for our own purposes, we have the numbers and the guns to make that happen.’”

I’ve read the Rubio speech carefully and can find none of this. I’d strongly encourage everyone interested in this debate to read it themselves. After calling it “shallow moralizing,” “half-assed moralizing,” “the great forgetful stupidity of our time,” “absurd,” “indefensibly stupid,” “nonsense,” “backward and destructive,” and “morally indefensible,” Williamson had room only for two actual quotations in his 2,500 words.

Rubio’s project is to explore the vast gray expanse between the white of liberty and the black of property theft. What are the conditions in a society that affect how economic actors behave and what outcomes markets produce? Which of those conditions does public policy influence? And if we have a preference for certain outcomes — say, a labor market that allows workers of varied skills in varied places to support families, and a diversified economy capable of supporting the national defense — which public policies should we choose?

This is the terrain on which many of American history’s great public deliberations have unfolded, yielding policies from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the “internal improvements” of the early 1800s, the tariff debates between McKinley and Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s space race, and Reagan’s import quotas. Property theft all of it, at gunpoint no less, if I understand Williamson correctly.

Which creates an awkward problem, because core to the fury at thinkers like Rubio is the conviction that all is going extraordinarily well with an American capitalism built on exactly that complex history. “The great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans,” writes Williamson, “is a product of the very model of capitalism they so intensely disdain.” They lack “a second’s serious thought to how it is we came to have such a vast pile of goods. Like prosperity just happens by magic.” But who has taken the position that prosperity happens by magic — those arguing for continued and careful attention to the prerequisites of a flourishing society, or those singing “All You Need Is Liberty” to an old Beatles tune?

Williamson’s choice of Monsanto as exemplar for his policy-free model of prosperity is instructive. It should take nothing away from the firm’s extraordinary breakthroughs to note the extent to which its success has been at least partly contingent on a web of government policies from research-and-development funding to support for academic institutions to farm policy to intellectual-property protection to rigorously negotiated trade policies. This is not an argument for the Obama-Warren rhetoric of “you didn’t build that” — to the contrary. We should attend to the infrastructure within which private-sector investments occur precisely because there is no substitute for the work those investments can do, the success they help achieve for not only a firm’s investors but also its employees and its community, and the spillover benefits generated for society broadly.

One sentence from Williamson’s barrage stands out for both its sensibility and its conflict with everything that precedes and follows: “The federal government exists to provide public goods that are necessarily national in scope.” Funny phrase, “public goods” — so similar in timbre to “common good,” so unrelated to concerns of liberty and property. Assuming the usage here is technical, referring only to things both “non-rival” (one person’s use does not restrict its availability to others) and “non-excludable” (access cannot be restricted to those who pay for it), we are left to decide what counts.

Someone will have to make a value judgment as to what “goods” are in fact “good” and thus worthy of providing publicly. Is a labor market that can support a flourishing society something to which the federal government should attend? Nothing in economic theory promises that markets will provide this on their own. It is surely non-rival and non-excludable. But we will need words besides “liberty” and “robbery” to discuss the matter further.

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