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Populism vs. capitalism: The myth of the market as a ‘tool’

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Tucker Carlson’s recent rant on the corrosive grip of cultural elites and pro-market conservatism has led to a bounty of intra-movement debate and introspection, ranging from loud “amens!” to loud “nay, nevers!” to critiques of resentful populism to more nuanced efforts to weigh and reconcile the legitimate tensions at play.

But as we explore the more complicated arguments about how and whether we can or should use the levers of government to insulate families and communities from “market forces,” it may be helpful to pause and consider what we actually mean (or ought to mean) when we discuss “market capitalism,” not to mention what’s actually at stake beyond the material stuff.

In an effort to do so, Jonah Goldberg puts his finger on a piece of passing rhetoric in Carlson’s monologue, which has unfortunately become common in the cultural vocabulary: the free market is simply a “tool,” a human system that requires top-down hacks, upgrades, and well-engineered human intervention.

“Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster,” Carlson says in his monologue. “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.”

For those of us who believe that “market capitalism” represents more of a manifestation than a “system,” such a notion is highly incomplete—not because we bow at its altar, but because we appreciate its contribution to all else, including to the strength of the family, community life, and civil society.

Yet such contributions are not measured only according to a populist’s value sheet of post-war factory jobs and economic predictability. As Goldberg goes on to explain, the ultimate commitment here is not to materialistic machinery, stock-market wizardry, or any series of economic widgets, comforts, or conveniences. The commitment is to economic liberty and its inherent value to flourishing individuals, families, and communities.

“Economic liberty is a right, too,” Goldberg writes. “Just because the free market looks like a ‘tool’ from the vantage point of some policymakers and other elites gazing at society from olympian heights doesn’t mean my right to buy and sell what I want isn’t a right too.”

But the “tool” analogy also falls short in its distraction from the intangible and social aspects of free and open exchange. Again, far from being some cold, banker-controlled machine—a “toaster”—the market is, at its simplest, an ever-evolving and ever-adapting web of human relationships bent toward creative service to our neighbors. We can say these relationships are simply a “means to an end,” but this, too, overly narrows and distorts our cultural imaginations when it comes to what we’re actually engaged in, leading to the very outcomes that Carlson is trying to avoid.

How we behave and engage in those relationships is critical, to be sure, and it ought to be oriented toward something (and Someone) well beyond the material outputs. But restoring that sort of cultural mindset won’t come from reform-con incentive structures or tech-school subsidies, however helpful or productive such solutions may be. It will come, first, from a rejection of the blindly utilitarian and materialistic world that a growing number of “conservative populists” prefer to imagine. If we succumb to the myth of the market as merely a “tool,” we are bound to adopt the fruits of those materialistic assumptions.

Working within a context of true economic freedom, we don’t just create, innovate, collaborate, and serve our neighbors because doing so gets us a profit or desired metric of GDP. We do so because it’s part of our social and spiritual natures as human persons. We do it because it unites us to the grand family of humankind.

Once we recognize and embrace this truth about “market capitalism”—that its core value is not material prosperity but economic liberty, and that economic exchange is profoundly social and communal in nature—we begin to see that our responses to a changing world ought to flow every which way, from market to family, family to community, and back and forth and back again.

That doesn’t mean that the tensions aren’t real or that riding them will be easy. As Yuval Levin explains in his own response to Carlson’s monologue, the challenges are profound:

Markets and a traditional moral order characterized by commitments to family, faith, community, and country can also be in very great tension with one another.

The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family and community, and it rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. It seeks the largest possible consumer base in ways often hostile to national boundaries and loyalties. Modern markets can also encourage consolidation in ways that are very far from friendly to civil society.

Traditional values, meanwhile, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom and refuse to conceive of men and women first and foremost as consumers.

These are serious challenges and tensions, but they will not be overcome by making enemies of that which can be reconciled. They will not be resolved by taming pro-market dogma or forcefully tipping the political-economic teeter-totter from a fanciful scenario of free-range banker-elites to a fanciful utopia of over-regulated pencil-pushers and government-protected industries.

Adaptations, integrations, and reconciliations will need to take place, but at the points where economic, social, and spiritual flourishing overlap and intersect. We will need to set our sights toward a holistic vision of human flourishing, one that recognizes the necessity of economic liberty, family stability, and a virtuous, service-oriented society—all woven closely together.

Our aims and efforts around the restoration of the American family and broader civil society are noble and necessary. They simply need to be fused together with a broader vision of what the free market actually is—not a tool for us to hack, but a liberty for us to inhabit, aligning those efforts with the restoration of all else.

Image: Tucker Carlson, Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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