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The current split in the “conservative movement”—I use scare quotes because it is only in the minds of those who consider themselves spokesmen for the “conservative movement” that the movement actually seems to exist—has created a major political division on the Right between those who understand that Donald Trump is the only president we’ve got and those whose preenciples defy reality. But it has also laid bare some fundamental philosophical economic differences that, all of a sudden, have come front and center.
Principal among them is the notion of the unalloyed good of free-market capitalism, fidelity to which the “movement conservatives” often repeat with catechetical fervor as if the very repetition of it, like the Islamic shahada, demonstrates its talismanic validity. Indeed, there are whole think tanks devoted to the concept that “free trade” benefits America by allowing Americans (among other things) to buy the best goods at the cheapest possible price, thus elevating their standard of living and allowing them to spend the money that they’ve saved on something else. After all, what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA—right?
Tucker Carlson’s instantly viral monologue from January 3, delivered on his Fox News show and widely reprinted online, exposed the fault line between the free-marketers and conservatives who think that the beggar-your-neighbor philosophy inherent in the practical application of “free-market” principles is, frankly, short-sighted, unpatriotic, and immoral.
Cue the buggy-whip argument, which I get whenever I dare to question whether the Amazon/Washington Post octopus ought to be free to gobble up the American retail industry unencumbered, or criticize Mitt Romney’s vulture capitalism, or suggest that “shareholder value” should not be the be-all and end-all of American domestic policy, or explain that Trump’s reliance on tariffs as an instrument of foreign policy is both historically valid and contemporaneously successful. That this jejune argument is often delivered by “conservatives” still sporting the intellectual equivalent of knee pants makes it all the more risible, since only those with almost no experience in the real world, writing from sinecures, could possibly believe it. And then they wonder why a naïf like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or a harridan like Kamala Harris is suddenly being taken seriously. As I like to say on Twitter, I never take political advice from small children, and neither should you.
Here’s one of Carlson’s salient points:
At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
Amen. But that’s the path down which an unthinking reliance on secular sloganeering at the expense of our shared humanity gets you. The contempt these zealots have for the working class in flyover country rivals and even exceeds that of their counterparts on the Left.
Dogma works for religion—it is an essential part of it—but religion is a compact between God and man, whereas political philosophy is exclusively the province of man. Which is why the messianic fervor with which slogans on both the Left and the Right are mouthed is so pointless: God doesn’t care about how mankind organizes itself here on Earth, only that we try our best to get to Heaven, however those terms may be defined.
So let’s state things clearly. It may be economically advantageous for the individual to shop smart in the sweatshops of China, but it’s not necessarily advantageous for the nation. (Notice I did not say for the collective.) Is it really morally worth it to undercut your neighbor on price—for just a few cents—at the risk of exporting his or her jobs overseas? Was Walmart’s destruction of small-town Main Streets in the heartland really such a good thing? Is Amazon’s takeover to be cheered at the expense of retailers all over the country—the result of which is now having unintended consequences in local communities? According to the New York Times:
With astonishing range and rapidity, big-box retailers and corporate giants are using an aggressive legal tactic to shrink their property tax bills, a strategy that is costing local governments and school districts around the country hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. These businesses—many of them brick-and-mortar stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Target, Kohl’s, Menards and Walgreens that have faced fierce online competition—maintain that no matter how valuable a thriving store is to its current owner, these warehouse-type structures are not worth much to anyone else.
So the best way to appraise their property, they contend in their tax appeals, is to look at the sale prices on the open market of vacant or formerly vacant shells in other places. As shuttered stores spread across the landscape, their argument has resonated. To municipalities, these appeals amount to a far-fetched tax dodge that allows corporations to wriggle out of paying their fair share. Either way, homeowners and small businesses will have to pay more or live with smaller budgets for police, schools, garbage pickup and road repair.
If the towns are losing property-tax revenue, perhaps they should petition Jeff Bezos, who has grown obscenely wealthy on the corpses not only of big-box and department stores, but on the bleached bones of the independent booksellers who were once the lifeblood of the publishing industry—although soon enough he may not be quite as rich as he used to be.
The fact is, pure “conservatism” as the “free marketeers” would like to see it practiced—it’s telling that the Venn Diagram of them and the #NeverTrumpumpkins would be very nearly identical—is neither a practical nor a moral form of capitalism. Happiness and the pursuit thereof are not merely economic; it’s also pride in accomplishment, in taking care of your family (even if you’re selling buggy whips), in doing good works. As Catholics understand, faith alone is not enough; there must be good works as well. Otherwise your faith is just a cult.
Firing your neighbor, putting him out of work by moving the factory to Mexico, eliminating his pension plan and then extolling the virtues of “creative destruction” is a moral obscenity. That it’s so blithely espoused by those for whom it has no practical or economic consequences is a national disgrace. But that it’s also a moral disgrace doesn’t seem to bother them one whit. They’d like the whole world, but, like the aptly named Richard Rich in Robert Bolt’s great play, A Man for All Seasons, they’ll settle for Wales.
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