One of the virtues of free markets is “creative destruction”. Simply put, it’s the economic replacement of old, inefficient, and outdated systems with newer ones better able to provide goods and services. For examples, old retailers like Sears are destroyed by new retailers like Amazon, who utilize a new and better way of doing business to provide products more easily at a better price. Something is improved upon, and the old version is destroyed. But what if the improvements aren’t worth the destruction?
Critiques of capitalism have been making the rounds for hundreds of years. But a new faction on the right, traditionally the defenders of open markets, isn’t sold either. The approach from these social and cultural conservatives is different from the charge of unfairness typical from the left. People need a sense of meaning to be happy, and a sense of meaning requires fulfilling work. When work becomes just a means to a paycheck, people become disillusioned, and nihilism sets in, with serious societal consequences.
One of the purposes of work is work. And a subsection of the right has become convinced capitalism is destroying work, and that’s destroying our communities.
The loudest of these voices is Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. Now I’ll be upfront, I don’t like Tucker Carlson. I think his anti-immigration rants border too closely on nativism, and he’s also kind of a socialist. He has made a very profitable business out of elevating the most absurd elements of the left to the national spotlight. Frankly, I think Tucker’s profiting immensely from, and in turn exacerbating, polarization, and he has bad ideas on top of that.
Anyways, Tucker’s monologue from last Wednesday went viral, and it brought this right-wing critique of capitalism to the forefront. The entire thing is 15 minutes, and my purpose here is not the actual monologue, but his major point can be summarized with this quote: “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.”
Now, it’s a legitimate question whether the populist movement on the right has real intellectual support or its momentum is largely due to circumstance. It’s also a legitimate question whether Tucker Carlson is worth paying attention to. As I stated earlier, my answer is usually no. There are also a couple of problems with the monologue itself, namely its promotion of victim mentality and somethings that are just untrue. (The links detail both these critiques at greater length.)
The reason I mention Tucker’s monologue is it’s not just Tucker. His monologue brought back to the forefront the previously mentioned split in attitudes on the right towards capitalism. There are real voices on the intellectual side of conservatism, Ross Douthat at the New York Times or Orrin Cass at the Manhattan Institute come to mind, who think the right needs to rein-in what they see as the destruction capitalism has wrought upon society.
I’d like to address this critique, what I find persuasive about it and what I disagree with. However first, I’m going to need to go down to a more abstract and basic level.
There are three ways in which I get you to co-operate with me, one of which is moral, one of which is amoral, and the last of which is immoral. There’s charity, in which you help me out because you’re a nice person. There’s trade, in which you help me out because in exchange I will help you out. And there’s coercion, in which you help me because otherwise I’d harm you in some way. At its most basic theoretical level, capitalism is simply the second method of co-operation extended many hundreds of times between many millions of people. When I make a purchase from Amazon, I am essentially making a deal with Jeff Bezos, that I have $17 that he wants and he has the hardcover version of Tucker Carlson’s book Ship of Fools that I want, complete with the financial infrastructure to transfer this information, and many people who have made their own deals with Jeff Bezos that enable him to have that book at my house in two days.
This is certainly an efficient system that is lifting hundreds of people out of poverty globally literally every hour. However, there’s nothing inherently moral about it. This is one of capitalism’s virtues, and problems. If we try to use capitalism, an amoral system, as the guiding moral light, is there any surprise we are struck with the blight of nihilism? This is the problem, and ultimately, why Tucker Carlson, or the smartest versions of Tucker Carlson, are partially correct.
The problem with capitalism is that it’s freedom. But freedom is chaotic, and while chaos can be beautiful, it cannot last. It needs something to contain it, to put chaos within order. Freedom cannot last without self-restraint, and capitalism cannot last if there is no virtuous superstructure supporting it.
Something Tucker gets right in his monologue is that our social problems are mostly the product of deeper economic transformations, of creative destruction. But he missed the final step. The economic problems have become social problems because we don’t have the moral structure to handle the changes capitalism has wrought. But this is going to get worse, not better, which means we need to double our efforts to rebuild the communities that restrain the worse excesses of freedom.
Tucker is right that if we cannot re-imbue capitalism with a sense of meaning, or build communities that can withstand the destruction in creative destruction, the free market will fall. And if it does, Tucker will be right about one more thing – the elites holding up the capitalist system have been a ship of fools tying their own nooses.