Capitalism: A conservative’s surprising critique
You know you’re living in extraordinary times when Tucker Carlson is “the most incisive public critic of capitalism in the United States,” said Matthew Walther in TheWeek.com. In a remarkable monologue on the state of American conservatism, the Fox News host denounced the Republican Party for its cult-like obsession with the free market. Unbridled capitalism, Carlson argues, has done as much as anything to destroy traditional families. While outsourcing, free trade, and private equity have made a small percentage of urban elites spectacularly wealthy, the same forces have gutted entire communities and left the working class in ruins. Unable to earn enough to support a family, American men are dying in record numbers from drug addiction and suicide. Marriage rates are plummeting, as marriage becomes a luxury enjoyed by the affluent. Payday lenders are the biggest businesses in many struggling communities. Nor has consumer culture made us happier. “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy?” Carlson asks. It’s a very good question. As Carlson says, “Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.”
It’s true that “something is seriously amiss in American life,” said David French in the National Review. But Carlson’s “victimhood populism” wrongly blames the free market for our nation’s ills. The tectonic changes of the modern age—including technology, globalization, the sexual revolution, and increasing secularization—have disrupted our economy and our culture. But blaming these changes on a cabal of heartless, money-worshipping elites is silly. Personal choices play a major role in what ails us. It’s simply not true, as Carlson claims, that manufacturing jobs are gone; in fact, there are hundreds of thousands of open factory positions that aren’t being filled simply for want of qualified applicants. Marriage is under assault, but that’s largely the result of individual decisions; poor Americans who choose to get married and form families have a much higher chance of reaching the middle class. It’s wrong to tell Americans they are helpless victims of banks, rich capitalists, and the government, and that their choices have nothing to do with their lot in life. “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”
Individual responsibility is important, said Timothy Carney in the Washington Examiner. But many of my fellow conservatives “overstate our ability to determine our own outcomes.” The circumstances in which you’re born and raised matter a lot. That’s why middle- and upper-class parents are so eager to live in good neighborhoods and get their kids into good schools, and provide them with lessons in sports, music, and art. That’s why we do everything possible to “maximize the odds that they can grow up as happy and successful adults.” But to the poor and working class we say, Hey, losers, you and your kids should pull yourself up by the bootstraps. In a country where good blue-collar jobs are scarce, housing is extremely expensive, and the culture and amoral profit seekers are luring kids into many kinds of self-destructive behavior, that’s become a lot harder.
Historically, conservatives have actively promoted the traditional virtues Carlson espouses, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. But in recent decades, they’ve thrown up their hands at the idea that government should do anything about protecting families from, say, rampant pornography, the internet, legal gambling, or the skyrocketing cost of child care. Why not at least try? If conservatives do not offer their own “paternalistic” policy solutions, desperate Americans “will eventually turn to socialism.” That shouldn’t mean embracing “anticapitalist” claptrap, said Timothy Sandefur in Reason. Free markets and affordable imports have raised standards of living for everyone, making the average American 90 times richer than the average human being. Just consider those “cheap iPhones” that Carlson derides. “Nobody can calculate the hours saved thanks to driving-directions features, the lives saved through quick access to 911, or the millions of simple, happy conversations that screen time or text messaging makes possible for families separated by long distances.”
Freedom is the key word here, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review. Carlson says “the free market is just a tool.” You could say the same thing about speech, or firearms. But speech and gun ownership are rights guaranteed in our nation’s founding document, which enshrines personal liberty as America’s distinguishing characteristic. Is Carlson suggesting that a conservative nanny state replace the liberal nanny state he used to rail against? “The new right-wing anti-market populists are going to need to do a lot more thinking about what they are actually advocating here.” ■