We need to get serious about economic populism and what benefits and costs it could entail for the United States. In his 3 January 2019 rant, Tucker Carlson sparked a conversation about the role of free market capitalism, according to Jane Coaston of Vox. Yet Carlson’s monologue presented no proposals and vastly mischaracterized the problem.
Carlson was right to frame market capitalism as a “tool”—a means, rather than an end in itself—and he was right to point out some social problems caused by the unbridled pursuit of corporate profit. But until we admit that any politico-economic calculation involves costs as well as benefits, we will not get close to arriving at the optimal set of policies needed to balance dynamism and development with protections for people and institutions. Conservatives and free marketeers need to admit that some degree of individual suffering and social discord is inherent in freedom: the invisible hand will not solve every problem. Liberals, progressives and socialists must admit that government intervention can and often does impede development: a free market system is necessary for the realization of their social justice goals.
Part of the problem is that right-leaning defenders of the free market system often deny that there is any balancing to be done whatsoever. The free market solves everything. Government can do no good. There is no reason to regulate any aspect of economic activity, let alone reconsider the system itself. They argue this way, in part, because they do not want to have to cope with potential challenges to capitalism. Ben Shapiro, for example, in his response writes, “The economic systems that allow families to thrive are the same economic systems that allow all human beings to thrive: free markets. … The decline of families in America has nothing to do with capitalism.”
Another problem with the free market absolutists’ responses is that they draw a stark dualistic line between freedom, represented by free markets, and government tyranny, i.e. socialism. Timothy Sandefur writes for Reason, “Freedom—economic or personal—is not ‘created by human beings.’ It’s the rightful, natural state of all persons. It can unjustly be destroyed, but never transcended.” This is a false choice. There are all kinds of government regulations present in even the freest of markets. A single regulation or intervention does not inherently destroy freedom or stifle development. With many political questions, there is no way of escaping making a choice that impacts the economy. What should be taxed, and how high should taxes be? How should pollution be addressed? You cannot escape these questions by refusing to answer, because to do nothing is also a policy choice. Letting companies pollute waterways as much as they want, for example, would impose costs on the public, who would have to pay for the treatment of health conditions caused by drinking poisonous water and/or pay extra to have their water processed. But imposing regulations, fees or allowing court cases against polluters would be considered a violation of freedom under the Manichaean logic created by this false choice.
The main focus of the questions raised by Carlson is how economic policies impact income inequality, middle class stability and the health of families. There is a larger ideological question as well. Carlson professes a view most people hold—that the economic system and policies we choose are a means to an end, not an end in itself. That end is happiness, as well as dignity, purpose, self-control and independence. But both Shapiro and Sandefur insist that America’s goal is the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.
The government cannot guarantee happiness on an individual level. But certain policies can bring about great benefits to a country and make the greater happiness of more of its citizens much more likely. All other things being equal, a country with a lower crime rate, higher standard of living and better access to healthcare would clearly be a better, happier place to live than a similarly situated country without those benefits. Crime rates, economic growth, provision of public goods and healthcare are all things that government policy can influence. Consider Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Taiwan, East Asian tigers, which developed quickly, using state-led developmental models heavily reliant on state planning and state-facilitated access to capital. The governments of South Korea and Taiwan continue to play a not insignificant role in their countries’ economies today, despite the fact that both countries are capitalist democracies. Do Shapiro and Sandefur think the people of those countries would be better off living in anarchic countries that never experienced economic development, as long as they still had their theoretical freedom?
Survival is at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. A human can survive on rice but not on an Ayn Rand book. Proponents of unbridled capitalism attempt to dodge this point by explaining that capitalism results in more people being fed and clothed and having access to goods. Sandefur points to the workplace and communications benefits of iPhones and to Amazon’s usefulness in delivering life-saving medical supplies, but this argument does not address whether capitalism is an end into itself. Rather it suggests that health and happiness are ends that capitalism helps achieve.
Shapiro and Sandefur are right in a general sense. Free market principles work to improve people’s standard of living and ultimately their chances of achieving happiness 90 percent of the time. But it is important to bear in mind what exactly they mean by free markets and socialism. Ben Shapiro asserts that people who consider healthcare a right are “undermining the functioning of the free market.” (One need not consider healthcare a right in order to support the universal and/or government-funded provision of healthcare as sound public policy.) Shapiro compares Carlson’s rhetoric to that of Bernie Sanders.
The Northern European countries self-proclaimed American socialists often point to as illustrative examples of their preferred social model are all capitalist countries with dynamic free markets. Denmark and Sweden rank twelfth and fifteenth respectively in the Heritage Foundations Index of Economic Freedom—ahead of the US, which is ranked eighteenth. They rely on vibrant economies in which investors provides capital, on privately-owned businesses in most but not all industries and voluntary economic transactions, which generate large amounts of wealth, some of which is taxed to pay for social programs. Socialists never cite actual Marxist countries— places like North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela—whose governments control most businesses and heavily restrict commerce. The democratic socialism of Northern Europe is the kind Marx dismisses in The Communist Manifesto as “conservative or bourgeois socialism”:
A second, and more practical, but less systematic, form of this Socialism sought to depreciate every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by showing that no mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence, in economical relations, could be of any advantage to them … Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism. It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois—for the benefit of the working class.
Government regulation, progressive tax policy, social welfare, universal healthcare and even some degree of protectionism for industry are not, then, inherently incompatible with capitalism and free markets. If they were, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada and just about every other capitalist country in the world would be socialist. It’s not a choice between capitalism and socialism—it’s about details and particular policies. Unfortunately, Tucker Carlson’s partisan rant failed to provide any solutions or deal with the implications of its own message.
That Carlson’s was a partisan message, intended to defend Donald Trump from Mitt Romney’s criticism, was clear from the get-go. The monologue came out one day after Romney’s op-ed critiquing Trump’s lack of civility was published in the Washington Post. The first sentence mentions this op-ed. Carlson calls Romney a “mainstream Republican” and an elitist businessman, in an attempt to suggest that Romney shares some of the traits of the American plutocrats, before pivoting to a longer attack on America’s “ruling class” and American-style capitalism.
Carlson’s cognitive dissonance is astounding. He attacks Romney for making $22 million dollars a year—a fact that is only public because Romney released some of his tax returns—which is peanuts compared to the billions of dollars Trump shamelessly brags about owning. Romney paid a tax rate of 14 percent, while Trump bragged that paying no federal taxes “makes me smart.” That Romney was able to pay such a low tax rate was due to the carried interest treatment of capital gains, a loophole that Trump kept in his new tax law, while also cutting corporate taxes, estate taxes and taxes on top income brackets and creating new pass-through income loopholes to benefit himself. That Romney, who has never been president and had only just become a senator, features so prominently—his name is mentioned fourteen times—in a piece supposedly about the income problems created by America’s political and economic system over decades is indicative of Carlson’s lack of focus. Romney is irrelevant to the problem.
Carlson’s message is so explicitly partisan that he even rules out listening to ideas from anyone on the left of the aisle: “For now, those leaders will have to be Republicans. There’s no option at this point.” Democrats have been among the loudest voices on this issue—both drawing attention to problems like income inequality and the excesses of corporatism and offering solutions. Yet Carlson preemptively disregards their ideas. Democratic senators and presumptive presidential candidates like Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand have proposed jobs guarantees. Senator Brian Schatz has proposed a bill to make college debt-free. Multiple Democrats have proposed variations on Medicare for all. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a green new deal, which could put working class people threatened with the potential loss of manufacturing and coal mining jobs to work in growing new industries like wind and solar. Twenty-seven Senate Democrats support government provision of universal childcare benefits, a policy that could address some of the problems working families face. Even less strident Democrats—like Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe—stress realistic policies, like expanding Medicaid and fixing the roads.
Contrary to Carlson’s argument, there are many choices besides Republican options. Republicans have not made anything close to the number of proposals Democrats have to address income inequality, middle class wage stagnation, shifting economic trends and the stratification of education and healthcare. On the contrary, Republicans have opposed raising the minimum wage, cut taxes on corporations, tried to cut back on government subsidized healthcare and made it harder for workers to unionize, and proposed policies that benefit corporations and the so-called ruling class. These are the positions Donald Trump has taken, too. Trump is a mainstream Republican when it comes to economic policies. In fact, Romney made it clear it wasn’t really Trump’s policies he was critiquing in his op-ed: he agrees with many, if not most, of them.
In many cases, Republicans have good reasons to take a position against expanding entitlements. Government intervention is not always a drag on growth but it often can be—and there’s no way of knowing all the unintended consequences of any measure. Many of the new Democratic proposals would bring about radical changes. There is a big difference, for example, between moderately raising the minimum wage at a pace the economy can handle, and more than doubling it—to $15 an hour nationally, as Senator Sanders and the Fight for $15 campaign propose.
These free programs will need to be paid for. We need to ask where we can find the money, in addition to whether it is really worth it. At what point do people need to take personal responsibility for paying for their own children’s lunches—not to mention staying off drugs, maintaining stable marriages and finding their own happiness? It is striking that Carlson only became concerned about such issues when, in his words, “rural America” started to look “a lot like Detroit”:
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
Whatever the reason for his newfound concern about unemployment (or male unemployment) and listlessness, Carlson has recognized a problem and puts the onus on the government—and the ruling class—to solve it. But if one immediately dismisses any call for more government intervention, any ideas from the more interventionist of the two major parties, then one is not left with many solutions.
Some of these problems are going to be with us no matter what policies the government enacts. The government can’t be ever present to make sure we don’t do drugs. The government can’t make sure someone without a work ethic gets up every morning and puts in a hard day’s work. This is another reason why conservatives typically oppose programs that promise too much and all forms of large-scale social engineering. Such programs don’t always work—and they open up opportunities for abuse.
Some people are going to be less talented, less virtuous or simply less fortunate than others—in any system. But conservatives who advocate less government help often suggest that offering nothing is better than offering anything at all. The person who can’t afford healthcare will become addicted to government largesse and unable to fend for himself, the argument goes. But what will that same person do if the government offers nothing? Nothing won’t help him either, and sometimes a government program actually will.
In a sense, the audience members at the 2012 Republican debate who shouted Yes! in response to a question about whether Ron Paul would “just let him die [a theoretical uninsured man who can’t afford healthcare]” were more honest than any politician around today. If traditional Reagan conservatives were more frank, they would admit that the free market alone is not enough. If economic nationalists were more candid, they would admit that things change and that tariffs won’t bring back the manufacturing jobs that were first lost from urban areas due to white flight and then lost completely due to automation. If socialists were more realistic, they would admit that even their programs cannot provide for someone whose terminal cancer costs $65,000 to treat. They would admit that just attacking the rich and rejecting the free market system itself—rather than reforming it—will only make matters worse.
And if Tucker Carlson were more realistic, he would admit that we can’t just dismiss half the country and still expect to solve these problems.