Here are two stories about the free market:
It’s 1999 and I’m in Kunming, China a city in the Western part of the world’s largest nation. The city is in rapid change. The streets are clogged with Western autos like Jeeps and Audis as well as homemade jalopies spewing out fumes. Skyscrapers are going up like crazy. Stores are filled with western items. It was interesting to see how China, which was considered a poor country was changing massively. Some of my colleagues from seminary were bemoaning the fact that China was going down the road towards a free market economy (even though the government was, and is very authoritarian). I inwardly rolled my eyes to my compatriot’s complaints. I saw the market as lifting up millions of Chinese people out of poverty and I still think it has. China today is a rising economic power, bypassing Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.
The second image is one that comes from my hometown, Flint, Michigan. Everyone knows about my hometown. But before it became known for the water crisis, it was known as a former factory town. Flint was the birthplace of General Motors and in the 20th century, it became the company town. Flint became synonymous with GM and there were GM factories dotting the Flint area. Both of my parents worked for GM. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, it was common to see car carriers filled with Buicks or Chevys heading to dealerships accross the nation. During that same period, the number of people working for GM was about 80,000 and the population of the city was near 200,000 people.
But the market changed. Factories became more efficient, meaning fewer people were needed. It was cheaper to build cars in places like Mexico than it was in the US. The dominence of the Big Three automakers ended as the gas crises of the 70s hit and Americans were looking for more fuel efficient cars and they went to Japanese automakers like Toyota to get them. GM closed factory after factory until today there are about 8,000 people working for GM. The city’s population is now under 100,000.
I share these two stories in light of the recent debate taking place in American conservatism over Tucker Carlson’s monologue. In it, he railed against elites that have seemed to forget the people that have been left behind in this economy. Carson’s rant shows a cleavage among the right, between those who believe there is little need for federal government intervention and those who think the time has come for Washington to be more involved.
People have responded in various ways. National Review writer David Frenchwrote a response where the gist of the message is that while the market isn’t perfect, but Carlson is making the working class into victims and weakening personal responsibility. J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, writes while the GDP has grown over the last two decades and people can buy cheaper goods like the proverbial flat screen television, he evokes Ronald Reagan’s line by asking if consumers think they are better off than they were 20 years ago. The answer, for Vance is no.
Vance’s essay talks about the opioid crisis and how pharmaceutical companies helped fuel the crises. He writes:
To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.
This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy?—?and all of its benefits?—?don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?
This is what I want to focus on here. Vance is bringing up an important point. The market is not evil, it can do wonderful things, it can lift people out of poverty. We want to have a dynamic society, not one that is static. But there are times that the market doesn’t work well. Sometimes it works against people instead of in their favor.
When people talk about the trouble with Toys R’ Us and Sears, the go-to answer is that these companies failed to respond to market changes or that people now want to buy things on Amazon than go into a store. But that is ignoring some of the specific circumstances that led these companies to fail, leaving many working class people without jobs. For Toys R’ Us, it was the actions of private equity firms that led to bankruptcy and leaving many employees with no severance. The market might be working in a sense that people have jobs and unemployment is low, but if you look closer, things aren’t working well.
I think it is past time for this discussion to take place. Not focusing on this issue is one of the reasons Donald Trump ran over all the 2016 GOP Presidential nominees. No, Trump never meant to DO anything to help the middle and working classes, but he talked about them, something that the others weren’t able to talk about. They weren’t able to talk about this because of the GOP is wedded to a lazzie faire version of the market economy. The downside of the fusionist politics of the GOP is that the party has adopted an economic libertarian view of the economy and ignoring any of the complaints and needs of others. One recent example is the debates in 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act was focused on getting rid of the law with any replacement being an afterthought. I was disturbed in the early days of the Great Recession that there were so many on the right that were willing for the big three automakers to fail even though that might cause a chain reaction that would throw the economies of several states in the US into ruin.
But this push for some kind of “nightwatchmen state” was not what someone like Ronald Reagan was in favor of at all. Henry Olsen (before he went full Trumpist) writes in the 2017 book, Working Class Republican, we learn that Reagan was a New Deal conservative, some who was reconciled to the fact that the New Deal was designed so that “the primacy of human dignity sanctions government help for those who need it.” But Reagan’s message has been corrupted over the years morphing from a small government conservatism to a seeming anti-government tone.
The message from those who disagree with Carlson is this: things are fine and if the working class are in trouble, it is their own fault. That is what National Review’s David French appears to be saying about Carlson’s cri de coeur:
Yes, we need public officials to do their best to create and sustain a government most conducive to human flourishing, but the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals. In fact, it is still true that your choices are far more important to your success than any government program or the actions of any nefarious banker or any malicious feminist.
It is a simple fact, that when people make bad choices, there are a cascade of negative effects that follow. The extraordinarily difficult challenge of public policy is considering how to mitigate the effects of those mistakes and providing pathways to overcoming bad decisions.
I know French is not being intentionally heartless- personal responsibility has been a hallmark of conservative thinking. However, when it comes to the poor and working class regardless of color or background, the belief is that it is all on you and in reality, people are not separated from their environment. If you live in an area where good paying jobs are no longer available and what’s left are poor paying jobs, you will make choices based on the climate or at least it will factor in greatly.
Some conservatives and libertarians will tell people to take a job even if it pays less. On the whole, that is a good idea, but what if that job pays less than your last one? Your bills don’t go down if you get a lower paying job. Others will say that singles and families might want to move to areas where there are jobs. Okay, but this also isn’t so easy. Do you move without a job? Do people have the money to move to a new place? Will they find a good-paying job once they get there?
The funny thing is that we don’t ask of people on the other end of the political spectrum, the bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity firms who make decisions that affect thousands who work for them? Should we not say something about the bankers that sold people loans they knew people would never pay back. Should hedge fund managers like Eddie Lampert, the former CEO of Sears who trashed the company, shutting stores leaving remaining stores in disarray, causing many to lose their jobs and who very well might walk away from Sears not losing one cent be blamed? What about the private equity firm that loaded Toys R Us up with debt and then liquidated without paying severance of the thousands of employees who were now jobless? Somehow conservatives are quick to tell the poor and working class that they are responsible for their lives, but the rich have no obligation at all.
But as JD Vance says in the article I quoted earlier: “What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric?” The center-right of the early 21st century talks about individual rights and the importance of the family, but when it come to talking about how the importance of communities of neighborhoods, those civic institutions that are the heartbeat of our nation, it is not so good at talking about that.
Which is why Tucker Carlson’s rant matters. I get that he is an incredibly imperfect voice on this issue, but he is bringing this out in the open. He is asking what makes for a flourishing society and many people are now saying that the conservative movement and the GOP are not promoting that flourishing society.
Conservatives and libertarians are right to see the market as something that can lift people out of poverty and into a better life. It can lead to a flourishing society. But it is only a tool, it is not an end in and of itself. Sometimes that tool works, but sometimes it doesn’t or it doesn’t work as well as it should. So to bring us to the end of a flourishing society we have to consider what other tools can get us there.
If the center-right is to be more than the grunts of people like Donald Trump, it has to be a party that is willing to see the market in its proper place and reorient ourselves to a new end in what makes a society great.
This means that our dynamic economy has to be countered with government to ameliorate the downsides. Most on the center-right hear the word “government” and think about large programs like the UK’s National Health Service or some kind of job guarantee program. That is not what is needed. We don’t need a large program to deal with problems, instead, what is needed is policy that rewards work, not simply to give money when people are out of work. Oren Cass and Abby McCloskey show how government can be used to reward and empower work through conservative policy. That means creating a policy that would give some focus on trade and vocational training. It means transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into something more like a work subsidy that provides the money more immediately than waiting for the beginning of the new year. It would also mean developing trade policies that would ameliorate some of the effects from free trade and it would also mean allowing a bigger role for organized labor.
As I said before, Tucker Carlson is hardly the best role model to be the troubedor for the working class. But he did get the center-right to have an argument of what kind of what makes for a flourishing society.