The Corner

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About That ‘General Welfare’ . . .

Sen. Marco Rubio before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Oren Cass, in the great tradition of college sophomores throughout the ages, discovers in the words “promote the general Welfare” a general constitutional license for federal action. Well. The preamble of the Constitution also speaks to concerns about “tranquility,” but I do not think that this empowers Washington to round us up and put us into camps to listen to Deepak Chopra lectures, and I come to this conclusion because of what comes right after the poetical language of the preamble: the establishment of a federal government of limited enumerated powers. I will confess to being lost about what Nicholas Cage has to do with this. Sounds like a question for Kyle Smith to me.

Cass is scandalized by my use of the word “robbery.” But I do not think that Oren Cass of Harvard Law actually needs to have it explained to him that a redefinition of property rights to the detriment of the property owner — which is precisely what “stakeholder capitalism” proposes to do in the case of corporate shareholders — is a taking, i.e. a seizure of property. If Cass doubts that this happens at gunpoint, he should try sitting on some property that the government has laid a claim to and see what happens.

Which brings us back to that “general welfare,” which is in the case of the federal government not a license for action in and of itself but a guide for action, a navigation point toward which federal action might be directed. And it is here that Cass and other like-minded advocates of a more interventionist and managerial economic philosophy for the Right indulge in epic question-begging.

I harp on the case of Senator Marco Rubio and his tender care that the billionaire sugar barons of Florida be shielded from market competition and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s equally narrow concern for the tax bills of Massachusetts-based medical-device manufacturers because they are mirror images of one another, illustrating the same point: Political incentives are a hurricane wind, and the rhetoric of “general welfare” is a pile of dry November leaves. We do not have to imagine what Senator Rubio might do with more discretionary power over economic activity, because we know what he does with the power he has: He abuses it in the interests of his political allies. As does Senator Warren. As does your average senator or member of the House. In the matter of sugar — and in other similar matters — Senator Rubio does not act in pursuit of the general welfare, but serves the rather more specific interest of his own political welfare. Senator Rubio here is not especially weak or especially corrupt — he is only emblematic.

I suppose that I do not need to repeat here how the simpleminded pursuit of the necessarily crude metrics inevitably brought into play in these political calculations reliably lead to catastrophic outcomes in the real world: Rising home prices are very popular with homeowners, who are politically influential (they are less popular with younger, less affluent people struggling to buy a house on responsible terms, who are less politically influential), and they are very popular with powerful special-interest groups such as the National Association of Realtors, and the prospect of wider homeownership enabled by easier access to mortgage credit is very, very popular with mortgage originators and traders in mortgage securities — and these political incentives in combination with others produced the federal policies that led to the 2008-09 financial crisis and the Great Recession, one of the greatest man-made economic disasters of our time. Again, we do not have to imagine what political steering of markets looks like: We have experience to go on.

Cass writes: “Williamson’s choice of Monsanto as exemplar for his policy-free model of prosperity is instructive.” This is an absurd sentence. I am not sure what a “policy-free model” might even look like, or indeed what those words arranged in that order could even hope to mean. The question is not whether we shall have policy in our . . . public policy . . . but what our policies are to be. I advocate generally applicable rules oriented toward the security of property rights and freedom to work and to trade in a stable and predictable policy environment, as opposed to special-pleading advocacy for this or that politically influential business interest (steel, corn, sugar, “green energy,” AIG, subprime-mortgage lenders, take your pick) based on a model of discretion that empowers politicians, giving them a whip hand over the lives and livings of workers and firms. I do not believe that the best alternative to a left-wing Elizabeth Warren is a right-wing Elizabeth Warren.

Monsanto is an interesting example of how business innovations serve the interests of the world’s poor and hungry not because it exemplifies some narrow ideological view of the world but precisely because it does not. That this eludes Oren Cass is a fact that is of some interest to me.

Senator Rubio’s speech and essay provide very little more than shallow, sterile, and banal rah-rah-ism of a vaguely nationalistic flavor. (I do wonder who wrote the speech and would love to know.) If you doubt me in this, please do go and read it yourself, and see if it contains anything that might be generously described as an idea, as opposed to an attitude.

What is most interesting to me about this particular instance of the new right-wing progressivism is that it raises a question I have been meaning to write about at more length, and will in the near future: The coalition that has made the Republican party politically viable for all these years no longer makes much sense; social conservatives and religious traditionalists might sell their support at the price of a few Kavanaughs (silver has gone out of fashion as a medium of exchange), but advocates of limited government, free enterprise, and property rights (different ways of saying the same thing) have fewer and fewer reasons to ally themselves with the Trump-era GOP and the welfare populism that increasingly is central to its political offering. For a long time, the distinct constituencies of the Republican coalition were kept together by the common enemy of Communism; deprived of that common enemy, they have discovered a new enemy: each other.

The Democrats have a temporary advantage in that the outright socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al. is not in the current political context irreconcilable with the New Deal progressivism that remains close to the heart of much of the Democratic coalition; pushed far enough, that socialism will be impossible to reconcile with the politics of certain Democratic constituencies, but the Left is still short of reaching that point. The Republicans, on the other hand, seem to me to have reached the point at which their coalition is obviously incoherent, a fact that is detectable in the incoherency of Marco Rubio’s “common-good capitalism” among other expressions of the same contradictions.

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