Magazine | February 11, 2019, Issue

Neither Idol nor Tool

The trading floor and the factory floor (Left: Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Right: Jetta Productions Inc./Getty Images)
Conservatives debate the market

Provocative comments on cable news are not a rarity, but comments that provoke a multifaceted and often thoughtful debate are. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, launched such a debate on January 2 with a broadside about Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, free markets, and American elites.

Romney, then a senator-elect, had taken to the Washington Post to reiterate his views about Trump: He supports many of Trump’s policies, opposes a few of them, and objects to much of the president’s behavior. Many supporters of the president were indignant at Romney for expanding on that last point. Carlson made a different critique: The policies Romney supported, the ones he opposed, and his business career were all symptomatic of a destructive elite consensus.

Romney, said Carlson, “seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war” but never bothers to explain how their presence in Syria aids Americans. “He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question.” On the other hand, Romney praised Trump for cutting corporate taxes. Which, Carlson said, was no surprise, since Romney had gotten “fantastically rich” by separating workers from their pensions and putting firms into bankruptcy. In sum, Carlson said, Romney “refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the ‘mainstream Republican’ view.” Carlson added that Democrats, too, want “to make the world safe for banking while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars.”

The public is, however, revolting against these elite views. Carlson thinks this revolt is justified. Under our current policies, “a lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.” Our leaders don’t care about the health of the nation, however, because they are “mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.” If they cared about the country rather than about making profits and generating tax revenue, they would not be legalizing marijuana or taxing capital more lightly than labor. They would have done something about the decline of manufacturing jobs, which in many places left women making more money than men and therefore less inclined to marry them.

The lesson Carlson wanted viewers to take away was that “market capitalism is not a religion.”

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. 

Republican leaders should strive “to unlearn decades of bumper-sticker talking points and corporate propaganda,” even if they lose donors and get called socialists for their troubles. “If you want to put America first, you’ve got to put its families first.”

Carlson elaborated on some of his points on subsequent nights, but much of the debate moved to the Internet (and especially to National Review Online). That debate quickly began to leave parts of Carlson’s argument behind. Ross Douthat in the New York Times, W. Bradford Wilcox and Samuel Hammond at The Atlantic’s website, Michael Brendan Dougherty at NRO: Though generally defending Carlson, none of these writers chose to back up his claim that marijuana legalization is something that elites are trying to “push” on the populace, with Mitt Romney, of all people, as the elites’ stand-in. For several years, a much larger proportion of Americans than of members of Congress have backed it.

Romney himself largely dropped out of the conversation, which is probably just as well, since Carlson had started it by taking extreme liberties with his words. Romney’s op-ed had not been “genuinely angry” about Trump’s Syria policy; it had not mentioned it at all, which is the actual explanation for Romney’s failure to discuss American interests in Syria. Nor did Romney refer to support for finance capitalism and foreign intervention — let alone to unwavering support for them — as “mainstream Republican” views. He used the phrase to commend such Trump policies as appointing conservative judges and fighting “China’s unfair trade practices.”

The best case for Carlson’s claim about elite responsibility for much of what ails working-class America was the one made by Wilcox and Hammond. They pointed out that the two parties agreed in 2000 to grant permanent normal trade relations to China, a decision that resulted in the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and made many working-class men less marriageable. That claim is based primarily on two studies. The studies’ findings have had great influence, but their limits have not attracted nearly as wide attention (see Robert VerBruggen’s article in this issue).

The “China shock” examined in those studies, first of all, was driven in large part by Chinese reforms that accompanied the normalization of trade relations: China’s reduction of its own tariffs, for example, made its exporters more productive. Other studies that have taken into account the broader effects of trade with China, for example on American exporters and on supply chains, have produced much lower estimates of net job losses or have even found gains. The effect of Chinese imports on marriage rates was on all accounts very small. The downward trend in manufacturing employment, meanwhile, is global.

VerBruggen, one of NRO’s many commenters on Carl­son’s monologue, noted that the trends in marriage that Carlson decried were real but hard to reverse: “We’re not going to push women back out of the labor force, destroy all the technological advances that have made physical labor less remunerative, or prevent further automation going forward.” Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) decried VerBruggen’s attitude as fatalistic in the Washington Examiner — although the senator did not share any ideas for boosting men’s wages relative to women’s.

Instead he wrote, “The American economy has shed millions of manufacturing jobs and made unemployed or underemployed the men who used to work them. This did not happen by some iron law of history, but by the public policy choices that made [the] economy do it.” To the extent Senator Rubio’s point is sound, the chief public-policy choice in question was to allow gains in manufacturing productivity, especially from technological development. His comment would be just as true, and for the same underlying reason, if “agricultural” replaced “manufacturing.” Public policy can shape economic development, as Rubio says, but it is not a cop-out to note that the constraints on its power to do so at a reasonable cost are tighter than he is currently in a rhetorical mood to allow.

Carlson was on slightly stronger ground when he insisted that GDP is an imperfect proxy for the health of the country. And while nobody who has thought about the matter for a minute has ever thought otherwise, focusing on GDP can indeed mislead us. Thus advocates of an amnesty for illegal immigrants point out that our GDP would be trillions of dollars lower if we deported them all. There are reasonable arguments against mass deportation, but that isn’t one of them — since a substantial fall in GDP of that kind would be theoretically compatible with every citizen of the country staying at the same level of income and wealth.

That policymakers are too fixated on GDP in general, though, is doubtful. The goods Carlson rightly prizes, such as a labor market in which people can provide for themselves and their families, are strongly correlated with GDP. The country would be much better off if GDP growth over the last two decades had kept up with its pace during the previous two. The solid economic growth of the last two years has been responsible for bringing a lot of men back into the labor force. And it’s worth devoting a lot of thought to how GDP growth can be sustained and increased even if it’s not the only thing worth thinking about.

Probably the most important question Carlson raised is how we — “we” especially meaning conservatives — should think about markets and capitalism. He denies, surely rightly, that we should make a religious dogma out of support for them. But it does not follow that we should regard markets as merely a tool. We don’t recognize property rights and contracts only because they produce good results. We are also moved by considerations of justice and freedom.

Treating economic liberty as something that has value in itself does not mean that it can never be limited. In America, governments at all levels condition, regulate, and infringe on free markets in countless ways, and there are no signs this will change. The religion Carlson indicts has few real adherents. But there is a kind of mental inertia that can afflict conservatives, a habit of looking at social problems with the assumption that they are the optimal result of markets or aren’t related to markets at all, and so either way nothing worthwhile can be done. It is good, then, to be reminded that free-market principles are not absolute.

American elites deserve to have their complacency punctured, too. Our ruling class does not regard the country as a set of resources to be pillaged, which is the impression Carlson gives, but it can be awfully self-absorbed. Opioids have been killing roughly as many Americans each year as the Vietnam War did in total, and politicians and journalists have been slow even to notice. Within recent memory the country went through a severe economic crisis, a crisis brought on by bad public policies and elite misbehavior. American elites spent much of its duration obsessed with the national debt (on the right) and health care and same-sex marriage (on the left) rather than with jobs and wages. Our political life would look wholly different if either of these things were not true. Perhaps this is why Carlson’s cri de coeur felt right to many commentators even though many of its specific points do not hold up.

The specifics matter, of course. Restrictions on trade and immigration are central to the populism that Carlson mentioned in his monologue; there are compelling reasons to doubt they would be a great economic boon for Americans in distressed communities. Polls suggest that Americans have in recent years become much more supportive of trade and immigration and that few Americans consider curbs on either a high priority.

But the larger context, political and moral, matters too. The Republican voter base has become more and more working-class, and marriage is in retreat within the working class. These trends make it more imperative than ever for conservatives to do what they — and everyone, really — should always be doing: thinking harder and better about how to help families flourish.

Ramesh Ponnuru — 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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