The Corner

Economy & Business

The Free Market Is Not Just a Tool

(Jim Young/Reuters)

I just listened to a truly great conversation between my colleagues, David French, Reihan Salam, Charlie Cooke, and Rich Lowry on The Editors about Tucker Carlson’s monologue, a topic I have yet to opine on — and I’ll save my more considered thoughts on Tucker’s cri de cœur and the various views raised by it for another time (though I am largely, but perhaps not entirely, in the Yuval Levin camp on the populism wars).

But I do want to sound off on one talking point that is making the rounds. “The free market is just a tool,” say Carlson and his cohort. This is simultaneously obviously true from one perspective and glaringly and outrageously false from another. And it dismays me that so many conservatives haven’t bothered to defend the free market more vigorously in the responses to this debate.

Look at it this way: Guns are tools. This is literally far more true about firearms than it is about the free market, because while both are to a certain extent artificial things, guns are actual physical devices bought and sold in the market. And yet, who among us, including Carlson, would deny that the right to self-defense is more than merely a tool?

Twitter, Facebook, magazines, and newspapers are akin to tools as well. They are artifacts. But they are also the means by which we often exercise various rights, chiefly the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. These rights aren’t merely tools.

Tucker Carlson has a TV show. His TV show is also a form of economic activity. Advertisers use it to sell soap. Tucker uses it to make money, promote his books, his speeches, whatever. He also uses it to exercise his constitutional rights. Show of hands: Who here thinks Tucker would be any more likely to accept the federal government banning his show on economic grounds rather than political ones? (Bonus question: How would we distinguish between an economic argument and a political one in such matters?)

Who thinks that Tucker wouldn’t eviscerate the claim that the government can use its regulatory authority — and apparently, according to Tucker, its moral obligation — to direct commerce for the good of society by banning guns?

Well, economic liberty is a right, too. Just because the free market looks like a “tool” from the vantage point of some policymakers and other elites gazing at society from olympian heights doesn’t mean my right to buy and sell what I want isn’t a right too. I am certain that I could spend a few minutes googling to find dozens of examples of Tucker — and all of his supporters — agreeing that the gay-wedding cake baker has a right to sell or not sell what he wants. I’d also find countless examples of tirades against people like Michael Bloomberg who think they know better than the citizenry about what foods or drinks they can consume.

Of course, economic liberty is not an unbounded right any more than free speech or the right to self-defense are. Reasonable limits can be placed on every right. But it seems to me the new rightwing anti-market populists are going to need to do a lot more thinking about what they are actually advocating here. The left has used economic regulation as a façade for cultural regulation for a century — and it wants to do a lot more of it. And people like my friend Tucker Carlson have gotten famous and wealthy denouncing elites for their nanny-statism. If I’m going to take the idea that the free market is solely a tool seriously, I’m going to need to hear a hell of a lot more about why rightwing nanny-statism is philosophically distinguishable from the leftwing variety. I haven’t heard anything like that from him or his fellow-travelers, at least not yet.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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