In spite of policy differences on social issues—from gay rights to gun control to abortion—the steadying core of modern-day conservatism always has been the defense of the individual over the state. During the Reagan era, the movement witnessed in real time how the disassembling of statist economic policies could resuscitate a fossilized free-market system to the benefit of nearly all Americans.
Before Reagan’s election, libertarian economist Milton Friedman warned that our economic freedom is threatened constantly by the capriciousness and self-interest of politicians and their special interest benefactors—and that was not okay: “Both the fragmentation of power and the conflicting government policies are rooted in the political realities of a democratic system that operates by enacting detailed and specific legislation,” Friedman wrote in his 1980 book, Free to Choose. He continued:
Such a system tends to give undue political power to small groups that have highly concentrated interests, to give greater weight to obvious, direct, and immediate effects of government action than to possibly more important but concealed, indirect, and delayed effects, to set in motion a process that sacrifices the general interest to serve special interests, rather than the other way around. There is, as it were, an invisible hand in politics that operates in precisely the opposite direction to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Individuals who intend only to promote the general interest are led by the invisible political hand to promote a special interest that they had no intention to promote.
Once upon a time, that wasn’t a radical way of thinking on the Right. It was mainstream—it recognized that a behemoth of bigwigs could, and would, easily crush the little guy. The invisible political hand is not the baker and the butcher and the brewer, but rather the banker and the bureaucrat and the Bloombergs. And as we’ve seen in just one highly publicized case, when the baker defies the bureaucrat—to say nothing of the Bloombergs!—who suffers most?
But now that those same sentiments have been expressed, not just by President Trump but by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, they are considered heresy by the anti-Trump Right.
In his passionate monologue on January 3, Carlson gutted Washington’s ruling class for its indifference to the plight of wide swaths of the American populace. Carlson argued that the health of a nation cannot just be measured in GDP—thinking so makes you “an idiot,” he declared—and that the disintegration of the family coupled with a rise in drug use, suicide rates and chronic unemployment in rural America is largely the result of not just antipathy but animus toward our working class brethren.
The greater good, Carlson pointed out, has been sacrificed at the expense of the many for the benefit of a few. The invisible political hand Friedman described nearly 40 years ago has yielded exactly the devastating consequences he warned it might. The “pathologies of modern rural America” are the same afflictions decimating our inner cities, Carlson observed, and for the same reasons that conservatives once acknowledged: Poor governance that trapped inner-city residents in a cycle of poverty and sought to replace the family unit consequently led to astronomical rates of unemployment, crime, drug use, and despair.
Carlson then asked a rhetorical question that conservative leaders have been asking for more than a generation: “What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country? A decent country? 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? A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything?”
Much of what Carlson said could have been uttered by Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley, Jr. or any conservative leader, past or present. In fact, in his autobiography, Reagan said something very similar to what Carlson expressed: “An America that is militarily and economically strong is not enough. The world must see an America that is morally strong with a creed and a vision. For us, values count.”
Conservative Inc. Responds
Carlson’s monologue resonated with people across the country; the clip posted on Fox News already has more than one-quarter of a million views in four days, and that’s just one portal.
But writers at National Review and The Daily Wire were not impressed. (National Review has several articles and a podcast devoted to Carlson.) Further, they refused to take any responsibility on behalf of modern-day conservatism either for ignoring or facilitating the economic conditions that Carlson decried.
David French argued that populism and “The Angry White Man” are the real enemies of prosperity and happiness: “We must not create a victim class of angry citizens. We must not tell them falsehoods about the power of governments or banks or elites over their personal destinies,” French warned. “We must not make them feel helpless when they are not helpless. Instead, even as we work diligently to make government more helpful than hurtful (which, frankly, can often mean getting government out of the way), we must continue to tell Americans a liberating truth: This is still a land where you can determine your own success more than can any political party or group of nefarious elites.”
He attempted to refute Carlson’s claims about rising marijuana use and disappearing manufacturing jobs—but the links he cited actually undermined his own argument. The America that French conveniently portrays (at least the one he doesn’t accuse of being racist and populated with white supremacists because of Trump) is filled with strivers unimpeded by government interference and blessed with the full bounty of unbridled capitalism who only have themselves to blame for their station in life.
In other words, according to French, there’s nothing to see here, rubes. Government policies—from lousy trade pacts to tax-funded corporate subsidies to porous borders to public pension sweeteners to burdensome climate change policies—have no impact on the economic freedom and entrepreneurial pursuits of a GenXer in the Rust Belt.
In a podcast, French and his co-host Alexandra DeSanctis essentially called Carlson a liar. Describing parts of his statement as “insidious,” “tricky,” “false” and “nefarious,” the pair of NeverTrumpers mocked the Fox News host for presenting a “caricature of the elite, that this is an elite that doesn’t care.” Oddly, and without evidence, French and DeSanctis then claim Carlson was lumping them into the category of elitists. They also ridiculed Trump and Trump supporters for believing some of the president’s approaches might actually help. “If we could just keep the GM plant in Morristown open, suddenly no one would be addicted to opiods,” DeSanctis sneered. “This is not in any way a solution that Tucker has correctly identified.” (She also offered no solutions herself.)
Ben Shapiro, editor of The Daily Wire, took issue with Carlson’s comment that families are being crushed by market forces. While Shapiro correctly stated that capitalism has nothing to do with the decline of American families, he does have to accept the central point of Carlson’s commentary, which is how “governmental incentives [have] skewed incentives.”
Shapiro also presented an unrealistic if not fantastical depiction of the U.S. version of capitalism, objecting to Carlson’s use of the word “tool” to describe the economic system. “It is not a tool. It is a reality of free and voluntary interactions among human beings. It is an outgrowth of the unique value of each individual, and of each individual’s right to use his labor as he sees fit, and to alienate that labor in exchange for the labor of someone else. And markets don’t exist to ‘serve us.’ They exist to allow us to act in liberty.”
Ah, if only that were true. But any business owner, from a home-based hair stylist to a corporate CEO, knows that it is not true. Every consumer knows it is not true.
Free-Market Fantasy vs. Managed Reality
It’s not capitalism or free markets, per se, that have contributed to the decay in our inner cities and rural communities—it is the inexorable, government-sanctioned abandonment of capitalism that has resulted in shuttered plants, abandoned strip malls, crumbling infrastructure, failing public schools, and an influx of deadly drugs from China and Mexico. But here’s the rub: an up-from-your-bootstraps approach to life in Morristown will do little to overcome that treachery.
Do French, DeSanctis, Shapiro or anyone else on the Right truly think that this country now functions under a free-wheeling market-based economy? Or is it, rather, a managed one? And if the answer is that it is a managed one, who are the managers and who are the subordinates?
Who makes the rules and who lives with the consequences? Have the choices made at every level of government, from the Environmental Protection Agency down to the local school board, really had no impact on the economic choices made by millions of Americans? To believe so is either ignorance or arrogance.
We are not living in the America of conservative hopes and dreams. We are living in an adulterated version of America after more than a century of Progressive assaults on the original design.
Trump’s appeal to the folks injured by this isn’t rooted in promises of new welfare handouts or shiny new schools or government jobs. It’s not true that Trump doesn’t believe in capitalism—far from it. But Trump is a realist. He knows that there is no such thing as a free market anymore, just as he knows there’s no such thing as free trade. However wonderful it sounds in theory, it’s not our reality.
His appeal is rooted in his pledge to rollback the very policies that have wreaked havoc on rural communities across the land and to confront the ongoing political indifference to those woes. It’s worthwhile to note that few, if any, of the anti-Trump influencers on the Right have offered sound alternatives to Trump’s policy prescriptions for rural America.
So yes, as Friedman warned, there is an invisible political hand at work in America. Trump and Carlson know this. Just because anti-Trumpers on the Right refuse to see it—or, in many ways, are part of that hand and so refuse to admit it—doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
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