When I heard Fox News’ host Tucker Carlson’s rambling attack on “market capitalism,” I was reminded of that circular theory of politics. Some political thinkers go so far to the right that they end up around the bend on the left and vice versa. Some of Carlson’s monologue could have been spewed by any modern progressive. It reminded me not just of the unpredictable ideological places that President Trump has taken the GOP, but specifically of Hillary Clinton’s infamous credo, “It takes a village,” which used to be a laugh line for conservatives.
Here’s Carlson: “What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. … A country you might recognize when you’re old. … A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations.”
Now here’s Hillary: “(W)e are all responsible for ensuring that children are raised in a nation that doesn’t just talk about family values, but acts in ways that values families. Just think … we are all part of one family, the American family, and each one of us has value.”
Both paint a romanticized and vaguely collectivist vision of our nation. Left and right have different priorities, of course. Carlson wants a “clean, orderly” society, whereas Clinton’s speech focuses more on one that’s egalitarian and fair. But they focus on culture, values and nebulous things – e.g., Carlson’s desire for “happy kids,” and Clinton’s call for individuals who have “value” – that are outside the normal purview of government.
Conservatives mocked Clinton because of what she left unsaid. Even the most dyed-in-the wool individualist would agree that villages can be good and necessary places. But they suspected something devious lurking right behind the gauzy rhetoric. Namely, they feared costly social programs and meddlesome bureaucratic rules that would insert the government more deeply into personal family decisions. Clinton, they were sure, wanted the state to take pre-eminence over the family.
That reflected the dividing line between left and right. Liberals wanted to use the government to uplift the public. Conservatives believed government’s role was limited to protecting our rights and providing services, thus leaving individuals free to pursue their own goals. Those days are gone. Now the right wants to uplift us and make us feel good, too. Blech.
Carlson’s policy prescriptions are unclear, but his disdain for markets is focused: “Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. … Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.” America’s goal, he said, is not “mere prosperity” but “happiness.” (His concern that such a system might not be “worth having” reminds me of a Vox interview with liberal economics writer Steven Pearlstein that’s headlined: “Is capitalism worth saving?”)
Viewing “market capitalism” as a mere tool toward the greater good of happiness is like calling freedom of speech or religion mere tools. They are ends in themselves. The founders never promised happiness. They envisioned a political and economic system in which individuals could make their own choices and pursue happiness without excessive government intrusion. People make good choices and bad ones and frequently end up disappointed. That’s the human condition. And no one actually worships capitalism. That’s cheap demagogy.
Furthermore, Carlson mocked cell phones and other consumer goods because they haven’t made people happy. Timothy Sandefur responded in Reason: “This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom’s enemies, who sneer at material standards of living in order to elevate abstract social goals over the needs of actual people.” And, Sandefur explains, Carlson forgets that markets don’t just create gadgets. Their resulting prosperity gives everyone more lifestyle choices and has led to medical achievements that have improved and lengthened our lives.
Most shamefully, Carlson blames nefarious forces for his grievances: “We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.” Now here’s Bernie Sanders: “Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders … whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.” It’s all the same populist buncombe.
Sorry, but the purpose of government is not to create a utopian village, but to protect your right to live your life and earn a living as you choose. If you end up miserable, that’s too bad. People who expect liberals such as Sanders or conservatives such as Trump to make them happy remind me of a headline I wrote when Hillary was on her book tour: “It takes a village to raise an idiot.”