We are, it seems, in the age of the “common good” wars. Florida senator Marco Rubio helped launch the latest iteration of this debate last month in his call for a “common-good capitalism,” with an emphasis on markets that strengthen families and the American worker. Though Josh Hawley, the freshman Republican senator from Missouri, might not have explicitly invoked the “common good” in a later speech at the American Principles Project, he touched on many similar themes by stressing the importance of a common prosperity and attacking a “Promethean” streak of radical autonomy in contemporary American life.
These twin speeches have ignited an intense debate on the right, including at National Review. Some (including Oren Cass and Declan Leary) have defended this “common-good capitalism.” Others — including Kevin Williamson and David Harsanyi — have attacked it as some form of statism. Outside NR, Noah Rothman, Emile Doak, and Henry Olsen are among those who have weighed in on this issue.
Some proponents and some critics of this idea might be tempted to posit some opposition between the idea of the common good and the idea of liberty. In many ways, though, liberty and the common good can be allied. Civil and economic freedom can contribute to the common good, and attention to the common good (while noble in its own right) can also be instrumental to the preservation of our liberties.
Though some sectors of the post-liberal Right and Left have soured on the idea of “capitalism,” much could be said on behalf of this system for contributing to the common good. It has slashed poverty across the globe, and, as Benedict XVI has suggested in Caritas in Veritate, the diversity of employment opportunities provided in a market economy helps open up the realization of individual gifts. For all the faults of the high neoliberal era (and there are many), it has also helped lift hundreds of millions out of crushing poverty. One needn’t be a radical utilitarian to think that this is a considerable accomplishment. The birth of the industrialized, modern market has helped nurture a modern middle class, one of the bulwarks of stable democratic governance.
As Hawley and Rubio have both noted, there are reasons to believe that trends over the past two decades have not been in the national interest — or the interest of a sustainable freedom. With skyrocketing deaths of despair, diminished GDP growth, and slipping productivity growth, the American political system is under increasing strain. Chris Arnade in his recent book Dignity chronicles the struggles (and deep-grained resilience) of many parts of this country. These economically hollowed-out areas are a breeding ground for human misery and political alienation.
Meanwhile, a few urban hubs — especially New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. — have hoovered up many credentialed Americans with high levels of social capital. But this concentration of opportunity generates its own tensions. Ferociously battling for gold-flake-topped slices of a shrinking pie, ambitious young meritocrats find themselves in a world of long hours, vertigo-inducing costs of living, and a haunting sense of gilded precariousness. This is a perfect storm for political radicalization. With family formation and hopes of a secure middle-class life indefinitely deferred, the would-be members of the new gentry class find themselves increasingly frustrated — and they have the cultural influence to make their frustrations resonate throughout the broader political system. Much of the new radicalism is fed not by the unemployed in the economic hinterlands or inner cities but by the interns and contingent staffers at prestige institutions. Here, again, the increasing concentration of financial and cultural power encourages social conflict. As avenues for opportunity close, battles intensify for the privilege of controlling the remaining paths to influence and power. For the ideological faction that does control them, the reward grows greater .
American journalism exemplifies this tendency. The shuttering of local newsrooms across the country has led to a press corps more focused on national politics, and a financially embattled press environment places a greater premium on generating clicks and controversy than on the sober work of getting the facts right. To maintain market share, the remaining national media behemoths have favored polarization, and aspiring journalists have a motivation to feed into it. As the middle ranks of journalists are gutted, news media have been pulled between the teeming masses of the underpaid and a (relatively) few marquee names. One need only open a national newspaper or watch a few minutes of a cable-news broadcast to see the damage that dynamic has wrought.
National policy choices (on trade, finance, immigration, and so forth) have contributed to these trends, and policy choices could be made to address them. While federal policy is not the only lever for achieving some of these ends, it has an important role to play. For instance, Senator Rubio in his speech highlighted the role of an expanded child tax credit and, in general, of increased tax benefits for families with minor children.
Immigration, health care, finance, infrastructure, and even federal employment are other policy areas for such reform. Through setting immigration policy, the federal government can influence the labor market, and a tight labor market is one of the greatest boons to working families. Immigration patterns, both legal and illegal, have in recent decades increased pressure on the wages of Americans without a college degree. Compounding this trend, guest-worker programs also risk undermining the employment opportunities of American college graduates. Taking efforts to tighten the labor market for Americans (both native-born and recent immigrants) could broaden opportunity and facilitate social integration.
A capitalism for the common good might confront the exploding costs of health care, which weigh on American families and threaten to undermine the dynamism of the American economy as a whole. While Republicans have made considerable effort in recent decades to cut income taxes, health-care costs devour a bigger portion of the income of many American families than income taxes do. Some of the interventions in this sector might include federal subsidies to help backstop health-care financing for less affluent Americans. But some of this effort to combat health-care costs would probably also include some market-oriented measures, such as repealing “certificate of need” laws, breaking up medical cartels, allowing more-flexible licensing for medical professionals, and pushing for price transparency. Some medical lobbying groups might push back against some of these efforts, but they might soon face a choice between market-oriented reforms and total government control of the health-care sector. Reduction of medical costs could advance another public interest as well: making the federal budget more sustainable (as medical spending is a significant driver of federal expenditures).
Many critiques of the high neoliberal era have trained their fire on financialization, and here again market principles can reinforce a common-good correction. For instance, one of the stronger arguments for reinstating some version of the Glass-Steagall separation of investment from commercial banking is that this wall of separation would fracture banking interests, thereby making it harder for one set of interests to gain excessive influence over federal legislation. The era of increased financial consolidation has made the American economy more vulnerable to systemic risk, so undoing some of that would help put the economy on sounder footing. More broadly, more-robust anti-monopoly efforts could help spur more market growth while also empowering a more diverse set of actors.
The infrastructure of the 21st century includes roads and bridges as well as digital communications. To maintain great-power status, the United States will almost certainly have to defend and extend this infrastructure. Development of it can sustain local communities and also enhance opportunities for private individuals. Moreover, protecting diverse supply-chain production networks in the United States serves both the national geopolitical interest and economic vibrancy.
Senators Hawley and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) have recently proposed moving many federal agencies away from the Beltway to other parts of this country. Even relocating a few agencies could help reverse the concentration of cultural and political capital in the Beltway, while also providing new opportunities for struggling parts of the country, from inner-city Detroit to rural West Virginia. A few hundred (or even thousand) jobs here and there wouldn’t transform the American economy, but they would send a message and help diversify social capital.
While this invocation of a capitalism of the common good has struck some observers as a radical new idea, steps to address the common good are well within the mainstream of American policy. Contrary to some laissez-faire mythologies, the United States has continually used government policy to achieve certain economic ends, and it has often done so successfully. The U.S. Constitution assigns to Congress the ability to create copyright and patent laws in order to encourage innovation, for instance. Industrial policy of a kind is as old as Alexander Hamilton, and, in the 19th century, the “American school” of economics (championed by Clay, Lincoln, and others) helped build the United States into an economic colossus. In the 20th century, Republicans and Democrats alike (from Coolidge to FDR to Reagan) used federal efforts to achieve certain economic aims. The victories in the two world wars and in the Cold War can be attributed in part to skill and foresight in economic policy. The talents, insights, and hard work of millions of Americans were, of course, indispensible for achieving these ends, but government policy helped create an environment where those capabilities could flourish.
Now, this doesn’t always mean that individual economic-policy efforts will be successful, or that they will not have unforeseen complications. In the 1970s, neoconservatives identified some of the failures of the Great Society welfare state while also seeking to preserve core elements of the social safety net. A gimlet eye should be applied as well to other efforts to implement economic policy. However, the challenges of crafting useful economic policy are not a reason for giving up on economic policy.
This attention to the common good would mean not a surrender to socialism but rather a way of averting it. In the United States, the socioeconomic disruptions of the high neoliberal era have done more to advance the cause of socialism than have a thousand radical broadsides. Providing a greater sense of economic security could help deflate more revolutionary projects.
Such federal policies would not be a panacea for deeper cultural issues (such as despair, isolation, and angst), but they could at least partially address them. A janitor who has more benefits and higher pay — perhaps because of unionization or a tighter labor market — might be able to move out of his parents’ basement and start a life on his own. A young couple who don’t have to move to a coastal metropolis to make a living but instead can stay close to home might find it easier to get married and start a family; lower costs of living and a closer kin network make the prospect of young children seem more manageable. When Mom and Dad don’t have to pick up an extra shift to pay for sky-high health-care expenses, they might have more time to volunteer with the Little League team or at the local church.
Attention to the common good and the defense of liberty need not be opposed impulses. In practice, they can be complementary ones. Political liberty depends on certain underlying social conditions, and a regime that wants to make such a liberty sustainable will have to attend to them. State action is not the only vehicle for defending them, but it can, in certain circumstances, be a vehicle. The protection of our private liberties depends in no small part on our attention to the commonwealth.