by Henry Olsen
Tucker Carlson’s much-discussed monologue last week leaves much to be desired. But factual errors or rhetorical excesses are not why it attracted vociferous criticism on the American Right. What really set the critics off is Tucker’s underlying moral premise: American republicanism sometimes requires public restraint of private vice, even in the sphere of economics.
The fact that this is even a debatable premise speaks volumes as to why American conservatism has struggled to become a majority for nearly 90 years. And the fact that this is the bottom line of President Trump’s approach to economics speaks more volumes as to why he swept the Republican field and won the White House.
Carlson and Trump agree that American business owners have long since stopped thinking they owe anything to American workers or communities because they are American. They contend too many American executives, responsible only to shareholders who in turn value only the highest monetary return possible, are unconcerned about whom they contract with so long as the contracts are upheld. Nearly everyone concedes this is how business operates today; the question is whether correcting or influencing this is a proper matter for public action.
Conservative dogma has said “no” for about 25 years. Treating economic action as a solely private preserve, any attempt to regulate or interfere in the terms of trade or the allocation of capital has been attacked by intellectual conservatism and its increasingly powerful libertarian allies. The fact that this has made ever more and more of industrial America a wasteland littered with closed factories, abandoned houses, and dollar stores doesn’t matter to these market fundamentalists.
Fallacies to the Right
Any attempt to counter their catechism is too often met with what I call reductio ad socialism. Propose a subsidy or a market intervention and they cry “socialism” or “Venezuela”—which if true means America was a very socialist country indeed for the roughly 75 years when the protective tariff was the law of the land.
Ben Shapiro’s negative reaction to Carlson’s monologue adopts this reasoning. Shapiro claims Carlson’s statement that “we do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite” means he “sounds far more like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren than Ronald Reagan or Milton Friedman.” But that’s laughable. Reagan himself can be quoted frequently in favor of targeted market interventions, including the many, many times he imposed tariffs during his presidency to protect American producers from Japanese competition.
Trump understood what no other Republican competitor did, that even Republican voters were tired of an economic system that pushed normal citizens into economic competitions that they could not win and that it was time for a change. Carlson’s monologue simply makes Trump’s underlying assumption clear—Americans owe obligations to other Americans that go beyond simple market arrangements. We can and should debate what those are and the extent to which public intervention is warranted. But to dismiss it out of hand, as Shapiro and others on the Right do, replaces America’s public philosophy with abstract ideology. Which, as it turns out, Ronald Reagan warned against in his 1977 speech to CPAC.
Market fundamentalists can’t deny that many communities have been hollowed out and that these places tend to foster social pathologies that once appeared to be the province of inner cities. But if private economic decisions can’t be criticized as a contributing factor, they have to come up with another explanation. And so they blame the people themselves for their plight.
Kevin Williamson’s notorious essay on white working-class dysfunction is the most famous in this genre, but it is far from alone. Both Shapiro and David French argue in response to Carlson that working-class problems like the opioid addiction, increased use of marijuana, dramatic rises in out of wedlock births are simply due to people making bad choices. “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal,” French writes. True in the abstract, but there are also things public policy can heal or at least ameliorate. To throw up one’s hands in the face of this is worse than folly; it is politically destructive.
Conservatives have tried this tack before. In 1932, Herbert Hoover argued that there was only so much he could do to combat the ravages of the Great Depression without destroying American liberty. While even Hoover admitted that nearly a quarter of Americans were out of work, he steadfastly refused to countenance increasing public spending to alleviate the suffering. Indeed, he criticized Roosevelt’s proposal to provide temporary work for the “10,000,000 unemployed” not only as infeasible, but because even “if it were possible to give this employment to 10,000,000 people by the Government, it would cost upwards of $9,000,000,000 a year. . . .”
In the midst of crisis, Hoover showed he cared more about money and form than people’s lives and substance. That image has plagued Republicans and conservatives ever since.
“But Reagan”? Indeed!
Americans rejected this call for fidelity to abstract ideals and a balanced budget over the need to help decent people live decently. They elected Franklin Roosevelt, and he and the Democratic Party remade America so thoroughly that it is unthinkable for all but the most doctrinaire libertarians to speak of returning to the system of “ordered liberty” that existed in Hoover’s time, a liberty that included no Social Security, no public unemployment insurance, and no protection for organized labor. To this day we live in Roosevelt’s garden, trying to replant a tree of liberty that can gain nutrients from this soil rather than raze and replant it.
Shapiro and others will cry “but Reagan!” “But Reagan” indeed. As I showed in my biography of the 40th president, Reagan never abandoned his youthful support of FDR. His conservatism was always an interpretation, not a rejection of FDR’s New Deal. That’s why Reagan could both lower and raise taxes, call for free trade and impose tariffs, call for dramatic spending cuts and for an expansion of Medicare, during his time in office. And it was why Reagan’s eight years in office were the only time since the Great Depression that Republican partisan identification rose dramatically, nearly closing the Democratic advantage that had existed for more than 40 years and that has existed in the 30 years since he left office.
Americans have supported limited but effective government intervention in the economy for at least the past 160 years. They supported the protective tariff, the Homestead Act, and the Land Grant College Act that the first Republican-controlled Congress passed and which helped average people improve their lives. They supported antitrust acts, workman’s compensation laws, and workplace safety laws to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from forcing Americans to work for less or in less safe conditions than they deserved. They supported FDR’s New Deal, which for all of its many faults contained many provisions that even today ensure a depression will never again cause social upheaval and penury. And they continue to support reasonable and targeted interventions when a sector of society can persuade the majority that they have been unfairly treated.
Carlson’s monologue and Trump’s presidency promise to continue that American tradition. They contend that an American prosperity that leaves millions behind is politically unstable. They contend that an American economic system that worries more about the reactions of foreigners than it does the feelings of citizens is unjust. They contend that an American government that enriches those who know how to pull its’ levers and treats election results as mere Kabuki theater is profoundly immoral and un-American. And they are right.
Americans may call themselves conservative, but they do not want ideological conservatism. Americans may call themselves liberals or progressives, but they do not want doctrinaire leftism. Americans want what they have always wanted and what their birthright, the Declaration and the Constitution, promise them: a government that, through its actions, will secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves and our posterity.
Hoover’s ignorance of circumstance and human nature made Roosevelt possible. Indulging the economic fundamentalist streak in American conservatism as too many in conservatism’s ivory towers want will be the best gift Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk can get.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).