18 July 2012

Will there be a "capitalism debate?"

In the New York Times this week, David Brooks takes alarm at the President's turn against capitalism. Brooks sees this rhetorical turn as election-year opportunism, noting that, in practice, Obama has not exactly been an enemy of capitalists. The President has paid homage like most people, Brooks notes, at the altar of Steve Jobs, and has made General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt an advisor; both were arch-outsourcers. Brooks is probably right about Obama's insincerity in his campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney, though Democrats may want to draw distinctions between "good" capitalists like Jobs, who can be credited with making wonderful toys available to Americans, and "bad" ones like Romney, Bain being a less popular brand than Apple. For the moment, Obama's strategy seems to have the Republican on the defensive, with Romney childishly demanding apologies while failing, as Brooks notes scornfully, to articulate a defense of capitalist practices. Brooks also notes that Romney isn't alone in his difficulties defending the rough edges of capitalism.

For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism, and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak. One thing is for sure. As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has said again and again, it’s not enough to say that capitalism will make you money. You can’t fight what is essentially a moral critique with economics. 

What, then, will a "moral" defense of capitalism look like? Romney's best hope, Brooks suggests, is defining capitalism along lines that underscore the necessary role played by entities like Bain and managers like Romney. The candidate's particular selling points, the columnist claims, are "rigor and productivity," with a likely emphasis on rigor as the precondition for productivity. Rigor, for Brooks, means accepting the "downsides" of capitalism ("plant closures, rich C.E.O.’s and outsourcing") as inseparable from its benefits. Romney will have to take an "eat your spinach" approach, the columnist suggests -- an approach that is only ever forced upon a politician by his opponent. In this case, Romney will have to argue, or Brooks would have him argue, that "you need to accept outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction if you want your prosperity."

Even Romney might realize how Brooks's approach begs some questions. If he wants to sell -- or wants Romney to sell -- the necessary rigors of capitalism, he'll have to do a better, more exact job describing the benefits than calling them "prosperity." Such prosperity is inevitably selective, but the Brooksian apologist must try to argue that the country as a whole benefits even if individuals suffer adversity. I'm not sure if a Republican would actually want to defend capitalism on a "needs of the many outweigh needs of the few" or "the national economic interest matters more than individual job security" basis. Brooks will be of little help to Romney even if the candidate takes his advice because Brooks himself doesn't fully follow it. He implicitly asks for a "moral" counter to a "moral critique" of capitalism, but there has to be more to that than "this is the price somebody has to pay for national prosperity." He'll have to make a case, if he dares, for the justice of unemployment and the obligation of the unemployed individual to adapt to adversity according to the moral codes of capitalism. But even if someone attempts to articulate such a stern argument, that still leaves another question begging. Brooks would have us accept the "downsides" of capitalism to get its benefits, but who's to say that the benefits ("prosperity," etc) are actually benefits of capitalism rather than industrialization, communications, etc.? Brooks should prove that premise first before he asks us to eat our spinach.

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