Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Common Ground on the Common Good

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2019 (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Conservatives should be able to find it

In his speech to the Republican convention in 1988, George H. W. Bush said, “I want a kinder and gentler nation.” Nancy Reagan, the wife of the man he was trying to succeed, reportedly had an acerbic reaction: “Kinder and gentler than whom?” When Bush’s son ran for president in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” others on the right were similarly unimpressed. Were plain old conservatives to be considered uncompassionate?

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) should have known what to expect, then, when in early November he spoke at Catholic University of America in favor of what he called “common-good capitalism.” Free markets have been serving the common good just fine, thank you, came the retort from many conservative and libertarian critics of the senator. If they look past a few mostly rhetorical points, however, the critics and Rubio may see that they can find common ground.

The goal of his speech was to contribute to our country’s holding together rather than to identify a “‘third way’ forward between the two prevalent schools of thought in our politics” or to “define a post-Trump conservatism for the Republican party,” Rubio insisted. But these alternatives are not incompatible with one another, and surely one of Rubio’s purposes was indeed to chart a course for conservatism after Trump. 

That purpose presupposes, correctly, that conservatism’s definition is up for grabs: that Trump’s election exploded one definition but that Trump has not replaced it, at least in any detail. Even though Rubio mentioned the president’s name only once, while disavowing the goal of looking past him, Trump was in the background the entire time.

As the examples of the Presidents Bush suggest, though, there is by now a long history of Republicans’ attempting to create a governing majority for conservatism, or just to win elections, by softening its devotion to limited government and markets. Running in 1980, Ronald Reagan took care not to present himself as Barry Goldwater redux: He was not a threat to Social Security or Medicare, and his tax cuts would generate enough growth to avoid a painful retrenchment of the welfare state.

Later came Pat Buchanan’s “conservatism of the heart” — complete with frequent invocations of Franklin Roosevelt’s line about the occasional faults of a benevolent government paling beside the constant ones of “a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference” — and Bush’s compassionate conservatism. 

As unusual as he is in many respects, as much of a jolt as he has given to the political system, Trump fits this pattern. He did not change a comma of Republican orthodoxy on social issues. But he ran as a Republican who would protect the elderly from entitlement cuts and manufacturing workers from imports.

In each case, politicians have thought, or intuited, that the great stumbling block between conservatism and voters was the fervor of conservative opposition to government activism. But the changes that these politicians attempted to make to conservatism’s approach to markets have varied, as have the justifications they used and the results they got. So the nature of the pushback that each attempt received has also varied.

In the debate over Rubio’s speech, nine questions have divided conservatives. He has the better of the argument on some of these questions, but not all of them.

First: Should government intervene in markets to advance the common good? Here the debate has been inefficient in just the way a light bulb can be: The ratio of heat to light is higher than need be.

A common good is simply a good that individuals, families, and other subgroups within a society cannot obtain on their own. Assuming, for example, that a government must superintend the building of roads in order for a nation to flourish, it is advancing the common good by doing so. In moments of rhetorical abandon, some of Rubio’s critics might say that government exists only to protect individual rights. But none of them seriously denies that there is such a thing as a common good or that government should seek it.

The common good includes such prerequisites for functioning markets as the rule of law. And while Rubio did not emphasize these points, perhaps taking them for granted, the Catholic social thought on which he drew respects private property, contracts, and subsidiarity (the notion that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do,” to quote the 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno). That government should pursue the common good does not entail collectivism or a denial of the intrinsic importance of individuals, families, businesses, or churches. It does not imply the subordination of these things to the state any more than the rule of law does.

Second: How badly has our economy been performing? At Catholic University, Rubio was as grim as any of the Democrats running for president. The economy, he said, has stopped “providing dignified work for millions of people.” As a result, “families splinter and children fall into poverty.” We have witnessed an “economic implosion.” Our “economic order,” regardless of where we happen to be in the business cycle, “is bad for America.” While Rubio himself did not broach the topic, conservatives sympathetic to his argument have also asserted that wages have barely risen in 40 years.

The senator and his fans are, as the critics say, scanting our economy’s real achievements. Wages and benefits, when accurately adjusted for inflation, have risen, and not just for the highest earners. The child-poverty rate, with the same adjustment for inflation and including government benefits, is probably at an all-time low.

This question isn’t decisive: Even if the economy has enabled many blessings, it might be possible to undertake reforms that would yield more of them; and even if our performance has been as bad as Rubio suggests, it does not mean he is on the right track in fixing it. But an accurate assessment of the economy is necessary to get a sense of the scale and nature of our problems, and Rubio’s is too pessimistic.

Third: How important is economic growth anyway? Rubio repeatedly points out that it is not enough. It won’t by itself lead to dignified work, and it must be harnessed and channeled to the benefit of our country. In this speech, his emphasis was entirely on the channeling and harnessing of growth and not on the fostering of it. He may have chosen to focus on what he believes conservatives need to be persuaded to see rather than on what they already apprehend. But it was a mistake on his part. A healthy labor market that lets people find dignified work is surely correlated with economic growth, so encouraging it has to be an important element of the pursuit of the common good. (Saying that the economy should “provide” this work, as Rubio does, is not the most dignifying way of looking at it.)

The critics go too far in the other direction. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn suggests that families would be better off with higher economic growth than with “tailored tax credits” — tailored, that is, to benefit parents. Every pro-growth tax reform of the past 35 years has included this kind of pro-family policy, though, so the alternative that McGurn posits may not actually exist. It is also difficult to imagine a pro-growth tax reform that would benefit a family budget as much as an extra $1,000 in tax relief per child each year. 

Fourth: To the extent the economy has been unsatisfactory, how many of our dissatisfactions are the result of trusting free markets too much? Listening to Senator Rubio’s speech, you would think we lived in a laissez-faire country. Looking at Senator Rubio’s legislative record, on the other hand, you would know better: He has again and again proposed reforms to existing government policies in the hope of improving American life. But if, as Rubio the legislator believes, our higher-education policies are an important obstacle to opportunity for all, then perhaps Rubio the speaker is giving us a misleading picture of our country’s problems when he dwells exclusively on the need for markets to be “guided.”

Fifth: Should companies be run for their shareholders? Rubio argues that we have taken the concept of shareholder primacy too far. Earlier this year, the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit group composed of nearly 200 top corporate executives, issued a new statement on the purpose of the corporation that abandoned any reference to that concept and instead said that companies should serve customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders, listing them in that order. The Wall Street Journal ran several editorials calling the statement a craven abandonment of free-market principles, and Rubio has been critiqued in similar terms.

The statement was, however, an accurate description of how business leaders see their role: They see companies as having multiple purposes, and they judge their success accordingly. Rubio speaks a bit more stringently of companies’ “obligations” to people other than their shareholders. Presumably he believes that government policies and our shared cultural understanding should encourage corporations to fulfill these obligations. If he means more than that — if he wants to change the fiduciary responsibilities of corporate managers, for example — he should say so.

Sixth: How should economic policies change to promote the common good better than they currently do? The critics so far have largely not argued that the principles Rubio has outlined, such as that government should pursue the common good, are wrong. Instead, they suggest that in practice a government run on these principles would be overbearing and destructive. But the specific policies that Rubio himself has advocated as parts of a politics of common good are not especially radical from a free-market point of view.

In his speech, Rubio mentioned a few of these policies: the child credit; an option to take Social Security benefits early to finance costs associated with the birth of a new child; an immediate write-off for the costs of business investment; a revamping of the Small Business Administration to support innovation; and the nurturing of a domestic rare-earths industry for national-security reasons. Most of these policies are defensible, if not quite natural, within a libertarian framework; all of them have ample and recent Republican precedents.

Seventh: Assuming that in principle the federal government has a broad role in pursuing the common good, is it prudent to grant it that role? Kevin Williamson, my libertarian-minded colleague at National Review, scorches Rubio for advocating quotas and price supports for sugar producers in his home state — and especially for claiming a national-security justification for these policies. It would be too facile to move from the fallibility and corruptibility of government to the conclusion that governments should content themselves with being night watchmen. But notably absent from Rubio’s speech is the notion that what we know about government should make us cautious and restrained with respect to government power.

Eighth: How many of our problems are economic to begin with? Our falling life expectancy and birth rate are surely an indictment of something about our society, and it would be foolish not to look at economic trends and policies for part of the explanation. Even causes that on their face are non-economic are probably related to economics: A decline in manufacturing jobs in a community may well contribute to rising opioid abuse and falling marriage rates. Rubio, though, speaks as though economics were everything, which is a particularly glaring defect in a speech that attempts to articulate a view of government that breaks free from materialism.

Ninth: Is this really the future of the Republican party? Republican voters have never been the dogmatic free-market fundamentalists of caricature — which is why all those previous attempts to redefine the party were conceivable and sometimes partially successful. The Republican coalition is changing, with a smaller proportion of its members having college degrees than in the past. As a result, it is becoming more open to policies that aim to protect the economically insecure.

But today’s Republicans are still recognizably descended from yesterday’s. Most of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Mitt Romney four years earlier. The party still favors tax cuts, which helps explain why Trump signed them. It still responds favorably to Reagan’s joke about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

In his Washington Free Beacon column, Matthew Continetti examines survey data on Republicans and finds that “market skeptics” are a minority, albeit an important minority. The part should not be mistaken for the whole. That’s true of the Republican coalition and true as well of the fragments of political philosophy that Senator Rubio has boldly sought to recover. 

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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