Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In his biographies of the Roman emperors, Suetonius describes a conversation between Vespasian and his son Titus, who disapproved of his father taxing the urine that tanners and other industries collected from public restrooms: “When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, [Vespasian] held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him. When Titus said ‘No,’ he replied, ‘Yet it comes from urine.’”
This sentiment has been summarized in the proverb, “Money doesn’t stink.” Currency, in other words, is morally neutral. Its buying power is the same no matter how good or evil its users or creators. As such the market cannot create on its own virtues or morals or any good other than profit.
This wisdom is often forgotten by those, like Karl Marx and today’s well-heeled socialists, who criticize free market capitalism for the social disorders that in fact mostly derive from the free choices of individuals, and an intrusive, technocratic federal government that has displaced and marginalized civil society––especially families and churches––and weakened the virtues they once taught and reinforced.
A monologue by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson set off a debate over the obligation of businesses to care about the welfare of their fellow citizens, and the impact of their products on society’s morals and happiness. But the responses of both sides miss the true culprit–– the corroding effects of secularism, the two-centuries-long intellectual movement that has tried to do without God, and replace Him with government.
Carlson starts by exposing Mitt Romney’s hypocrisy in criticizing the economic populist Donald Trump for his “character.” After all, Carlson argues, Romney made a fortune as a buccaneer capitalist who bought companies, sucked them dry of assets, then left them to wither and die. He is part of an economic system and a government whose bipartisan goal is to “make the world safe for bankers.”
Meanwhile, he says, the baleful effects of rampant consumerism and materialism, particularly the breakdown of the family, that are “destroying America” have been ignored by corporations and crony-capitalist governments that put economic growth and wealth first, and neglect the well-being and happiness of their fellow citizens.
Thus, across the developed nations of the world, we are watching “entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their [the peoples’] lives,” a movement that globalist elites deride as a demagoguing populism at best, and incipient fascism at worst. Carlson especially faults free-marketeers for ignoring how “families are being crushed by market forces.” Immoral and predatory industries––payday loans and legalized marijuana, for example––are allowed by government to flourish, our tax system favors corporations and the wealthy, and the economy is skewed towards the interests of the rich at the expense of everybody else, who have to live with consequences like disintegrating families, vulgar hedonism, suicide, and self-destructive behaviors.
And instead of taking responsibility for their fellow Americans who are impacted by an economic structure that dedicates itself to profit no matter the social costs, our corporate elites have farmed that job out to the federal government and its entitlement programs that do more harm than good by destroying character and virtues like self-control and responsibility for one’s choices.
Lively debate ensued. Several commentators took issue with Carlson’s impassioned monologue, either for scanting people’s bad choices that in the main are responsible for social dysfunctions, or for misrepresenting America’s economy and its impact on people’s virtues and mores, or for stoking a dangerous populism that demonizes elites and feeds envy and resentment. Others, like National Review writer J.D. Vance, agree with Carlson for raising the question, “What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?”
In part both sides are right: the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” erode the very virtues and values that have made it successful; on the other hand, free-market capitalism has increased wealth and distributed it more widely, giving billions of ordinary people a level of material existence unprecedented in human history. But the arguments of both sides neglect the central historical change that all our chronic dysfunctions go back to: secularization, the notion that increasing knowledge about the world, human nature, and society is a more just and efficient way to solve our collective problems and create social harmony. As for religious beliefs and practices, they should be relegated to the realm of private life, a pastime or life-style choice kept out of the public square.
But free-market capitalism developed during a time when Christianity was still vibrant and permeated people’s lives to an extent rarely seen these days in the West. As such, Christianity provided a balance to the centrifugal forces and materialist focus of capitalism’s creative destruction. Victorians still recognized, even if they sometimes violated, Christian imperatives to tend the soul, to keep in mind its spiritual destiny, to imitate Christ with acts of charity for the less fortunate, and to remember that “man does not live by bread alone.” And the Christian virtues provided an ethical framework for businessmen that checked and mitigated, not always successfully, the desire for gain, and helped prevent it from morphing into the sin of greed that today erodes the rules of fair play and trust that keep the market just and efficient.
Of course, even Christian businessmen still rigged the market, cheated their customers, and robbed share-holders. But a socially vibrant faith maintained a belief system that taught all men would be accountable to God for their actions, and the fate of their souls would be determined by that judgement. And shame and guilt remained powerful checks on behavior. Charles Dickens, who wrote at the same time industrial capitalism was taking off, created the quintessential expression of this spiritual counterforce to the dangers of capitalist greed and selfishness in Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is an early vision of the sinful capitalist whose soul is warped by his materialism and indifference to the suffering of the less fortunate, and finds his redemption only by being taught how we all are beneficiaries of the kindness and charity of others and the grace of God, and so are obliged to reciprocate those kindnesses to our fellows.
The decline of faith and its banishment from the public square, then, explains the dysfunctions Carlson and others complain about. Today’s global market does not feel obligated to fellow citizens, and dismisses the costs of creative destruction that the masses must bear. But from the perspective of the market’s defenders, if one looks beyond individuals to larger trends, free-market creative destruction has improved billions of people’s lives by rewarding ambition and innovations whose value is determined by the market, and so creates more wealth for more people.
In the long run, more people benefit, albeit at the cost of many people being left behind. Think of all the blacksmiths, horse-trainers, stable-keepers, and other workers who in 1900 provided and tended the 100,000 horses for New York City’s transportation, and removed the 2.5 million pounds of dung from city streets. They disappeared with the advent of gas-powered vehicles, which jumped from about 4,200 to 39 million between 1900 and the early 1920s.
The benefits to society and the economy, however, outweighed the costs, a necessary calculation for assigning value to anything we humans do in an imperfect world. And the benefits of an expansion of global freed trade and economies are obvious from the growth in global wealth: between 1990 and 2017, gross domestic product increased from $23.4 trillion to $80.1 trillion, and worldwide more than a billion people escaped poverty.
But many of us rebel against such cold-hearted, utilitarian calculations that seemingly are indifferent to the fate of those whom economic growth leaves behind. Nor in our therapeutic age do we countenance “blaming the victim,” which caricatures the principle of holding people accountable for their free choices. What, then, should we do about those left behind?
We used to rely on families and civil society, especially churches, to mitigate the consequences of economic dislocation, and to pressure businesses to take better care of their workers. Now we turn to the state to do so. For example, more government intervention is what Vance calls for to fix the opioid addiction crisis, which led to 30,000 of the 80,000 drug overdose fatalities last year, the former number an increase of 25,000 deaths in just four years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But the federal government does not have much of a track record for solving the drug abuse problem. Since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, a trillion dollars has been spent. Yet drug abuse is still a plague on our society. Similarly, the “war on poverty” initiated by LBJ over 50 years ago has spent $20 trillion dollars, yet official poverty rates have remined static, and social dysfunctions like crime, drug use, and fatherless households have gotten worse. These failures come from not recognizing the role of character flaws and the lack of virtue in creating such problems.
So too with other state and federal programs that attempt to solve problems from a technocratic or materialist set of assumptions about external forces determining behavior. But with unemployment currently below 4%, 2.6 million new jobs, 281,000 new manufacturing jobs, and many jobs going unfilled, it’s hard to blame the economy for drug abuse or crime. But as secular organization, government agencies view such problems not in the context of personal choices, but “scientifically,” as engineering problems rather than reflections of a flawed human nature and the mystery of free will. As Dostoevsky taught us, humans will choose irrational, self-destructive, and criminal actions if only to prove that we are not mere material things determined by the laws of nature or economics.
Finally, state agencies are compromised by the political forces that determine who runs them and for what purposes, which often entail serving political clients and donors rather than the people they’re supposed to benefit. They also suffer from the problems of group-think, institutional aggrandizement, careerism, and the moral hazard that always follows when, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins.”
The two solutions, then, offered by Carlson and his critics are either to somehow compel corporations to be more accountable for the impact of their business decisions on their fellow citizens, as Carlson implies when he speaks of “improving people’s lives”; or to redistribute more taxpayer money to pay for government interventions that often cause more problems than they solve. However, neither corporations nor government agencies can be trusted with moral problems: businesses exist to make “non-olfactory money,” and their highest good is profit; a redistributionist and centralized government exists to control people, and its highest good is power.
Neither of them gets at the root of our social dysfunctions and discontents: our culture’s turn away from the transcendent truths of the Judeo-Christian traditions, which recognize that human beings are complex spiritual creatures––bestowed with the gift of freedom, flawed with inalienable tendencies to destructive choices, and in need of forgiveness and redemption by our creator.
But this traditional truth is dismissed by our dominant ideologies as an irrational superstition and dangerous obscurantism. Sadly, our materialist, technocratic official mind-set refuses to admit that religion has something to offer for mending broken humans, preferring to believe that any problem can be solved given enough taxpayer money and enough technocrats armed with the latest “scientific” knowledge.
Until we bring faith back into our public discourse, we will continue to have sterile debates that recycle the same received wisdom, and institute policies that produce the same failed results.