09 December 2016

Populist Republicanism: shall men or markets rule?

The President-elect isn't waiting until his inauguration to try and save American jobs, yet he's getting criticized for everything but acting prematurely. Democrats are criticizing his negotiations with Carrier on the assumption that the company will be bribed with tax breaks to keep jobs here, while unions, to Trump's disgust, claim that his intervention is only a cosmetic gesture. How do Republicans feel about it? It seems to depend on their commitment to conservatism and what they mean by that term. George Will, for instance, describes the Carrier deal as "the opposite of conservatism." What, then, is not being conserved? The free market, apparently, because the Carrier deal is a form of government intervention where it doesn't belong. It smacks to Will of "industrial policy," which governments shouldn't have. Industrial policy "involves the essence of socialism — capital allocation, whereby government overrides market signals about the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Therefore it inevitably subtracts from economic vitality and job creation." Will is far from reconciled to Trump because Trump, for all his enthusiasm for cutting taxes and regulations, seems far from reconciled to the free market. Both Trump and his supposedly more ideologically sound running mate have questioned the national interest in free markets, or at least in free trade as an ideological imperative. This is heresy to Will, who writes, "When Republican leaders denounce the free market as consistently harmful to Americans, they are repudiating almost everything conservatism has affirmed." That sounds like a lot, but based on what Will writes here, conservatism as he knows and loves it dates back only to Friedrich Hayek, the 20th century prophet of "spontaneous order," though Will tries to backdate the concept to Edmund Burke's time, the 18th century. The doctrine of spontaneous order contends that politics can never produce better results than the self-educating and self-correcting mechanisms of the Market, though the contention begs the question, "Better results for whom?" Will's answer, at least -- confirming my view that conservatives aren't the most dedicated individualists -- is the collective. "The damages from government interventions [like the Carrier deal] are cumulatively large but, individually, are largely invisible," he writes, "The beneficiaries are few but identifiable, and their gratitude is telegenic." Who cares if a few people cling bitterly to their jobs, after all?

Several hundred Carrier workers may keep their jobs for a while, but multitudes more will suffer in the long run, Will warns. His is at heart a warning against a demoralization of economic life defined by our refusal to submit and adapt to the inherently impartial verdicts of the Market. Instead, the columnist argues that Trump, in his desire to keep jobs from going where the Market directs them, is pandering to a victim mentality among American workers similar to the victim mentalities Democrats cultivate in other contexts. For Will, it is morally wrong for American workers to look to government to protect their jobs. To him, that is a contemptible admission of helplessness when it should always be possible to improve our own lot through effort, but what's really contemptible about this line of argument is what Will holds up as a healthy counterexample.

"[T]here was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)," Will writes, "When the Dust Bowl smothered Oklahoma, the Joads were not enervated, they moved west in search of work." No, your eyes did not deceive you. George Will sees The Grapes of [F'n] Wrath as a hymn to the American work ethic. You know, the book in which the Joads move west not simply because of weather issues but because their farm was repossessed by a bank. I'll let Wikipedia tell the rest: "Reaching California, they find the state oversupplied with labor, so wages are low, and workers are exploited to the point of starvation. The big corporate farmers are in collusion, and smaller farmers suffer from collapsing prices. Weedpatch Camp one of the clean, utility-supplied camps operated by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, offers better conditions, but does not have enough resources to care for all the needy families. Nonetheless, as a Federal facility, the camp protects the migrants from harassment by California deputies." In other words, government people are good guys in the Steinbeck novel, while by following George Will's recommended course the Joads simply continue to get screwed by the Market. Will's is the sort of deliberate misreading that should bring John Steinbeck bursting from his grave to bash Will in the head with his Nobel Prize. With enemies like Will, Donald Trump deserves more friends. Whatever his nearly numberless faults, Trump as a populist seems to recognize something that the secular Pharisees of so-called conservative Republicanism never have: that the market was made for man -- or, in populist terms, the American market was made for Americans, workers as well as consumers -- and not man for the market. And somehow that makes him a bad person in George Will's eyes. Yet you could argue that Trump is the more conservative Republican than Will so long as Trump intends to conserve -- or, rather, restore -- the original protectionist essence of Republicanism that mastered markets during the 19th century and once helped make America great.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Mr. Will needs to be taught a very painful lesson that this planet, the human race and the various government of this planet DO NOT EXIST TO SERVE THE INTERESTS OF THE "MARKET", rather, the market exists to serve the interests of humanity. If shitbags like Mr. Will refuses to understand that very simple concept, then Mr. Will and his ilk need to be removed from the human species.