On Wednesday evening, Tucker Carlson delivered a 15-minute monologue on his Fox News program regarding the future of economics and politics in the United States. In that monologue, Carlson accurately bemoaned the current state of the American soul – rising suicide rates and overdose rates, declining levels of family generation, declining ties that bind us together. He then attributed that hole in the soul to bad policy, both political and economic.
There’s no question that America has pursued bad policy for years – and that some of that policy has undermined family dynamics. The welfare state, to take an obvious example, has skewed incentive structures for millions of Americans, making it easier for them to break apart their families and raise children in solitude rather than in the comfort and stability of a two-parent married household. When government attempts to solve the ills of individuals, it all too often destroys the incentives that support responsible behavior.
But Carlson seems to attribute America’s troubles not to government interventionism, but to government non-interventionism. Typically, conservatism has argued that if you live in a free society in which you have not been targeted unfairly, your failures are your own. For Carlson, however, the very freedom of our society leads to the unhappiness so many of us feel. Carlson seems to suggest that our system itself is to blame for individual shortcomings, and that collective restructuring of free institutions will alleviate and cure those shortcomings. This is simply not reflective of conservatism, or of founding ideology.
Carlson’s monologue was ostensibly about the failure of Republican elites to understand the populist revolt underway across the globe. Carlson explains:
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.
This, of course, is eminently true. And our answer used to be that meaning wasn’t supposed to be found in stuff at all – but that didn’t obviate the desire for or usefulness of that stuff. Supply and demand economics has powered most of the world’s human beings out of extreme poverty, and led to the richest society in human history. It has allowed us to live longer, in bigger houses, in more comfort. It has meant fewer dead children and more living parents. If we’ve blown that advantage, that’s our own fault. Traditional conservatives recognized that the role of economics is to provide prosperity – to raise the GDP. The role of a social fabric and a value system is to provide meaning.
Carlson, though, conflates the two. Economics should provide meaning. How? Through jobs. Here’s how Carlson works this magic:
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
Here’s where Carlson goes wildly wrong. The goal for America wasn't happiness. It was the pursuit of happiness -- the framework of freedom that allows us to pursue happiness. I do want dignity and purpose and self-control and independence for my children – so, presumably, do you. But I don’t find dignity, purpose, self-control and independence for my children in policy generated by political leadership. I teach my children that they have been given innate dignity by God, that their purpose lies in acting in accordance with virtue, that self-control is both a quality of character and productive mode of entrepreneurship, and that independence must be cultivated so that we can act with dignity and purpose in the world. At no point would I suggest that my child’s sense of purpose or dignity ought to come from government intervention, or that lack of purpose or dignity can be attributed to free trade with Mexico.
But that’s where Carlson goes – and naturally, finds limited government wanting. After all, if politics is the universal solution to our problems, and it doesn’t solve our problems, we’re doing it wrong. What’s more, our leaders are maliciously harming us by calling for free economies that generate cheaper, better goods and more stuff:
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule…One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
No, both parties don’t believe this. The Democratic Party believes that the economy should be structured from the top down so as to maximize particular social outcomes. The Republican Party used to believe, anyway, that economic choices ought to be just as private as family, faith and culture – that we ought to be free to make our own choices -- and that family, faith and culture must be cherished by the public at large.
But according to Carlson, both parties have embraced the idea of free trade and limited regulation as a solution to problems of the soul – and thus both parties have come up empty. The Democratic Party, Carlson says, is “functionally libertarian” – a perfectly incredible contention given the fact that the current new wave in the Democratic Party has called for universal healthcare, universal free college tuition, universal basic income, forced paid maternity leave, massive environmental regulation, and a tax structure that would remove a heavy majority of income from Americans of all income quintiles.
The Republican Party, Carlson says, is dominated by social conservatives who complain that the American family is collapsing, but neglect to blame the market for family breakdown. Carlson says:
The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive.
This is true. The economic systems that allow families to thrive are the same economic systems that allow all human beings to thrive: free markets. Family formation hasn’t been improved in Europe thanks to government interventionism. Socialism in the Soviet Union didn’t help family creation and stability. The decline of families in America has nothing to do with capitalism. Families have been crushed by individual decisions by individual human beings, by cultural forces militating against religious virtue and in favor of radical redefinition of human relationships, and by governmental intervention that has skewed incentives. The social safety has grown to epic proportions as the family has collapsed. Jobs have not disappeared at the rate that families have come apart – in fact, far from it. Cultural decay and government do-goodism are a dangerous combination.
But Carlson generally neglects cultural decay altogether as a factor in family decline. Instead, he blames both the welfare state and trade policy – as though tariffs aren’t merely an indirect form of wealth redistribution. Carlson argues that the pathologies of “inner city Baltimore in the 1980s” looks a lot like the pathologies of rural America today – a comparison that is undeniably true. But he then blames importation of foreign labor for that problem, and argues that wage stagnation is the chief driver of this problem:
Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
There are several problems with these claims. First, manufacturing has not disappeared – it’s remained stable, while the rest of our economy has grown. Second, wages have not stagnated in the United States in material terms – far from it. While wages have declined on an inflation-adjusted basis, that’s not true in terms of what you can buy for the same wage – in other words, what we actually care about when we get a paycheck. Furthermore, non-wage benefits have expanded dramatically since 1979 – they now amount to between thirty and forty percent of earnings. Wage growth has largely paralleled productivity growth in the United States for decades. The middle class in the United States hasn’t disappeared – it’s become mostly upper middle class (30 percent of Americans were upper middle class in 2014 as opposed to 12 percent in 1979).
Carlson goes on to complain that women now earn more than men – and says that this is the reason for family breakdown. He states:
In many places, women suddenly made more than men. Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow -- more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation. This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
It may be true that artificially boosting male wages makes them more attractive to women. Presumably, artificially boosting women's looks would make them more attractive to men, too. But it's a stretch to suggest that percentage of births to single mothers has exponentially increased from near zero in 1950 among whites to 36 percent as of 2014 thanks to rising female wages; female and male incomes are close to parity when adjusted for hours worked, career choice, and time in the workforce. It's difficult to imagine large masses of women sleeping with men they'd be interested in marrying, getting pregnant, then taking a look at his paycheck and deciding to bear the child and toss the man out of disdain for his earning potential. Single motherhood is a result of irresponsible decisionmaking, or decisionmaking without consequences, not well-considered economic arguments.
Furthermore, suggesting that rich people get married because they are rich is mistaking correlation for causation. Rich people aren’t getting married before they have kids because they’re rich and thus can afford a fancy wedding. They’re rich because either they or their parents made the virtuous and responsible choice not to have kids before they get married. The spate of single motherhood isn't happening due to outside pressure -- single moms aren't being forced to sleep with men to whom they aren't married and then bear children, nor are men being forced to knock up and abandon the mothers of their children. Rich people aren’t privileged in individual choice about when to get married and have kids. Everyone is capable of such decisions.
Yet according to Carlson, it’s the fault of the rich that poorer people aren’t getting married:
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
Rich people are giving enormous amounts of charity within the United States – as David French points out, Americans gave over $410 billion in charity in 2017, with just 6 percent going to international charities. And here’s the thing: charity isn’t going to cause people to get married. Neither will welfare. Neither will trade policy. How many couples do you know who are just waiting to get married until President Trump slaps a steel tariff on China and the local factory reopens? Marriage has declined because values have declined.
And Carlson, briefly, seems to agree with this point, at least:
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
This is correct. But the problem isn’t that we need to crack down on investment banking or cut better trade deals or redistribute income from investment banking to riveting. It’s that we need to change our values.
But Carlson doesn’t stay there. He goes right back to railing against the free market, as though it’s responsible for family breakdown. He blasts payday lenders, without suggesting exactly how people are supposed to get the rent money on short notice without a government interventionism that breeds dependency – and a dependency that breeds irresponsibility and yes, more single motherhood. Instead, Carlson rants:
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work -- consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
Calling consensual activity exploitation is paternalism, no matter how you slice it. And while Carlson decries drug legalization thanks to the deleterious effects of drug use, he doesn’t propose an actual solution. Carlson attributes the quest for marijuana legalization to greed and apathy, but the war on drugs has been a massive failure, jailing thousands of people for voluntary exchanges while failing to lower rates of drug use, and spending trillions to do it.
Now, not all of Carlson’s policy prescriptions are wrong. His point about taxing investment income at the same rates as earnings isn’t wrong, for example. But his general conclusion about what ails America is wrong. Here’s that conclusion:
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. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.
This is a complete misread of market capitalism. It is not a tool. It is not a “creation” of a centralized decisionmaking process. 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.
Market capitalism isn’t one choice among many; it’s not a value neutral proposition. Pretending it is is a road to centralization of power. If you think economics is a tool to wield like a stapler, you’re closer to Bernie Sanders than to anything remotely resembling founding philosophy.
And market capitalism has not destroyed our social fabric. Lack of values did that. If market capitalism exacerbated that problem through materialism and consumerism, that’s because we chose to make it so. The fault lies not in the invisible hand, but in us. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we’ll start taking the steps to rebuild the institutions that undergirded our free and prosperous society in the first place.
For further reference, here's the Sunday Special I did with Tucker on many of these topics: