The Corner

Economy & Business

How Democracy and Markets Aren’t Like Toasters

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) asks questions of James Comey before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., September 30, 2020. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Senator Mike Lee tweeted, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Oren Cass responded, “Likewise, free markets aren’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Market fundamentalism can thwart that.” Tucker Carlson attracted wide attention last year when he said something similar: “Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it.”

All of these comments express important truths, but they are also incomplete in an important way. (Excusably so, especially given that they were made on Twitter and cable tv.) A lot of the value of economic and political freedom is instrumental: They help us achieve other goals, and those other goals should inform how we structure and sometimes limit that freedom. Keeping that instrumentality in mind should help us avoid a distorted understanding or overvaluation of the goods of markets and democracy.

But they’re not just instrumental goods. We value the toaster only for the toast. Economic liberty is valuable in itself, and so is the ability to take part in the making of the laws one must obey. Given the choice between two equally prosperous and peaceful societies, one with voting and markets and one without, the first one would be preferable. (And of course we have good reason for believing that markets and democracy are more likely to achieve these happy results.)

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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