by George Will
Trying to give intellectual coherence to the visceral impulses that produced today’s president, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is joining anti-capitalist conservatives. Those who reject this characterization are unaware of how their skepticism about markets propels them to an imprudent leap of faith.
In a recent Washington speech, Rubio said America has “neglected the rights of workers to share in the benefits they create for their employer.” Careless language — workers are not sharing America’s bounty? — serves Rubio’s economic determinism, which postulates a recent economic cause for complex and decades-long social changes. Economic “negligence” has, he asserts, “weakened families and eroded communities,” diminished churchgoing and PTA participation, and increased substance abuse. If only the explanation of, say, family disintegration — a social disaster since the 1960s, before economic globalization — were monocausal.
Rubio deplores “financial flows detached from real production,” flows bypassing the “real economy.” But if not to “real” — an uninformative adjective — production, where are financial resources flowing, and why? And what expertise does a career politician bring to disparaging decisions of professionals trained to connect capital with productive opportunities?
Rubio’s concern is not economic but philosophic: The efficient allocation of scarce resources — i.e., all resources — should be subordinated to communitarian concerns, including “the obligation of businesses to reinvest in America.” The flow of Rubio’s rhetoric is unimpeded by data — his 3,725-word speech contains almost none — perhaps because data do not demonstrate the neglect he asserts. If he thinks the $147 billion invested in research and development in 2018 by the 190 large corporations represented on the Business Roundtable (half as much as was distributed in dividends to the corporations’ owners, the shareholders) is insufficient, by what metric does he determine this? His regret that since 1980 the financial sector’s share of corporate profits has increased from about 10 percent to 30 percent reflects a desire, both reactionary and romantic, to restore and preserve, like a fly in amber, the imperfectly remembered economy of mid-20th-century America.
Twelve times Rubio celebrates, or laments the loss of, “dignified work,” yet he never suggests the adjective’s meaning. What work does he deem undignified? Does “dignified” denote a certain ratio of mind to muscle? If so, Rubio should compare the work of the relatively few who operate today’s modern steel mills with the unpleasant, dangerous labor of the many who once toiled in dark, satanic mills containing open-hearth furnaces. Fortunately, their jobs have been eliminated by technology-driven productivity.
Rubio substitutes for data a torrent of overheated rhetoric about America’s “economic implosion,” its “disordered economy” (whatever that might mean) that has created only “pockets of prosperity” because the economy is “rigged” (a verb and adjective also favored by Elizabeth Warren and President Trump). Rubio’s limp solution to the American carnage he depicts is “common-good capitalism”: discouraging corporations’ buybacks of their shares, immediate expensing of investments, reforming the Small Business Administration, which he says is financing “lifeless corporate conglomerates.” Lifeless?
He says, perfunctorily and discordantly, “The idea that government can impose a balance between the obligations and rights of the private sector and working Americans has never worked.” Yet he endorses “public policies,” a.k.a. government, to “drive investments in key industries” — government picking winners, hence losers, too — because “pure” market principles are not “aligned” with the national interest.
So, this time what he says has never worked is going to work. Talk about faith-based policy. Public choice theory could teach him realism about the sociology of government: The theory dispels the romantic notion that governments are run by people more omniscient and nobly motivated — less interested in personal aggrandizement — than private-sector actors.
Rubio serves in a legislature whose constant resort to funding the government with continuing resolutions testifies to its incompetence concerning even its most elemental function: budgeting. Yet he expects this government to wisely define the “common good” and deftly allocate wealth and opportunities accordingly.
Abandoning actual conservatism’s realism about the difficult trade-offs involved in policymaking, today’s right-wing anti-capitalists seem to seek a stagnant social equilibrium: No portion of society should become better off if, in the process, another portion would become worse off. About this, at least, the Commander in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was wiser: “Better never means better for everyone. . . . It always means worse, for some.”
Finally, when the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) diagnosed “collective sadness” resulting from social isolation in the society — a “dust of individuals” — of his day, he partly blamed government’s domination of society, to the detriment of the local, intermediary institutions Rubio wants to strengthen but actually would threaten.
George F. Will is a columnist on politics and domestic and foreign affairs fopr the Washington Post. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” was released in June 2019. Follow