Debating “Common-Good Capitalism”

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Posted: Nov 27, 2019 9:22 AM
Debating “Common-Good Capitalism”

Source: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

I’m a big fan of Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator has been very good on some big issues and on some small issues. And he’s willing to fight important philosophical battles.

No politician is perfect (for instance, Rubio defends sugar subsidies), so I’ve always judged them by whether – on net – they’re on the side of more freedom or more statism.

Which is the ideal framework for today’s column.

Earlier this month, Rubio wrote a column for National Review asserting it is time for “common-good capitalism.”

Pope Leo XIII wrote that the ultimate goal for any society should be to “make men better” by providing people the opportunity to attain the dignity that comes from hard work, ownership, and raising a family. …What makes this society possible is the rights of both workers and businesses, but also their obligations to each other. …In the economy Pope Leo described, workers and businesses are not competitors for their share of limited resources, but partners in an effort that strengthens the entire nation. …This…doesn’t describe the economy we actually have today. Large corporations have become vehicles for shareholders and banks to assert claims to cash flows, rather than engines of productive innovation. Over the past 40 years, the financial sector’s share of corporate profits increased from about 10 to nearly 30 percent. The share of profits sent to shareholders increased by 300 percent. This occurred while investment of those profits back into the companies’ workers — and future — dropped 20 percent. …This is what it looks like when, as Pope Francis warned, “finance overwhelms the real economy.” …Diagnosing the problem is something we should be able to achieve… Ultimately, deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics. …What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism. …our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market; the market exists to serve our nation.

Some of this rhetoric rubs me the wrong way (and citing an economic illiterate like Pope Francis is appalling), but what really matters is whether Rubio is proposing more power for government or less power for government.

That’s hard to say because he doesn’t offer much in terms of policy.

Though I’m not overly impressed by the handful of ideas that were mentioned.

I don’t pretend to know anything about rare-earth minerals, but it’s laughable to think the Small Business Administration is a wellspring of innovation, and there’s plenty of evidence that paid parental leave is bad policy (child tax credits aren’t bad, but there are other tax policies that are far better for families).

On the other hand, Rubio also has been making the case for “full expensing,” which is a very good policy.

Since we don’t have any additional details, I don’t know whether his new agenda is a net plus or a net negative.

Kevin Williamson of National Review, by contrast, is definitely not a fan of Rubio’s approach. Here’s some of what he wrote last week.

Senator Rubio…joins the ranks of those who propose to reinvent capitalism — “common-good capitalism,” he calls it. …Senator Rubio, working from remarks originally delivered in a speech at Catholic University, references a series of popes — Leo XIII, mostly, but also Benedict and Francis — to describe (whether the senator understands this or not) the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking… I write this as a fellow Catholic: God defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers. …power is what is at issue. Men such as Senator Rubio desire for themselves the power to overrule markets — to limit trade and property rights, enterprise and exchange — in the service of what Senator Rubio describes as the “common good.” The problems with that are…Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. …What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” …This is not a brief for anarchism. …We need stability and predictability from a government that secures our liberty and our property in the least obtrusive way that can be managed.

And he followed up two days later with another critical column, even equating Rubio’s agenda to Elizabeth Warren’s loony proposal.

From Senator Marco Rubio and his “common-good capitalism” to Senator Elizabeth Warren and her “accountable capitalism,” politicians right and left who want politicians to have more power over private economic decisions assume a dilemma in which something called “capitalism” must be balanced against or made subordinate to something called the “common good.” This is the great forgetful stupidity of our time. …Capitalism, meaning security in one’s own property and in the right to work and to trade, is the common good… What is contemplated by Senator Rubio and Senator Warren — along with a few batty adherents of the primitive nonidea known in Catholic circles as “integralism” and everywhere else more forthrightly as “totalitarianism” — is to invert the purpose of the U.S. government. …We’re supposed to give up our property rights so that these two and their ilk can use corporate welfare to fortify their own political interests? …The “stakeholder” thesis put forward by Rubio and Warren would strip shareholders of control of their own property and use that property in the service of interests of other parties, who are not its rightful owners. …the great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans and Western Europeans — and, increasingly, by the rest of the world — is a product…of capitalism… It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t the cleverness of Senator Rubio or Senator Warren. It wasn’t the big ideas of Pope Francis, to the modest extent that he has any economic ideas worth identifying as such.

Oren Cass argues that Williamson is both unfair and wrong about Rubio.

Williamson believes that Rubio wants to “be . . . the bandit, taking control of other people’s property”; “strip shareholders of control of their own property,” which “is robbery”; “redefine away the property rights of millions of Americans”; “limit . . . property rights”; and “run Apple or Facebook or Ford.” …I’ve read the Rubio speech carefully and can find none of this. …Rubio’s project is to explore the vast gray expanse between the white of liberty and the black of property theft. …This is the terrain on which many of American history’s great public deliberations have unfolded, yielding policies from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the “internal improvements” of the early 1800s, the tariff debates between McKinley and Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s space race, and Reagan’s import quotas. Property theft all of it, at gunpoint no less, if I understand Williamson correctly. …Someone will have to make a value judgment as to what “goods” are in fact “good” and thus worthy of providing publicly.

Cass is right that there’s a lot of space between pure capitalism and awful statism. I’ve made the same point.

But it does worry me that he favorably cites a bunch of historical policy mistakes, such as protectionismantitrust laws, and the New Deal.

Jonah Goldberg makes the should-be-obvious point that the United States is hardly a laissez-faire paradise.

For as long as I can remember, people on the left have complained about “unfettered capitalism.” …Senator Bernie Sanders said earlier this year that “we have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism.” …Recently, the concern with capitalism’s unfetteredness has become bipartisan. Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have taken up the cause in a series of speeches and policy proposals. Conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony have taken dead aim at unrestrained capitalism. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News have suggested that economic policy is run by . . . libertarians. My response to this dismaying development is: What on earth are these people talking about? …If you think there are no restraints on the market or on economic activity, why on earth do we have the Department of Labor, HHS, HUD, FDA, EPA, OSHA, or IRS? The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world (i.e., the share of taxes paid by the rich versus everyone else). If you take into account all social-welfare spending, we spend more on entitlements than plenty of rich countries. Now, if you think we don’t spend, regulate, or tax enough, fine. Make your case. If you think we should spend and tax differently, I’m right there with you. But the notion that the United States is a libertarian fantasyland is itself a fantasy.

Amen.

And this brings me to my modest contribution to this discussion.

I’ve already admitted that Rubio hasn’t provided enough details to assess whether he wants more liberty or more statism.

That being said, I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and we know for a fact that “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” meant more statism).

So here’s my challenge to Rubio and Cass (as well as everyone else who proposes an alternative to Reagan-style small-government conservatism). Please specifically identify how much government you want. Yes, there is a “vast gray expanse” between pure laissez-faire and pure statism, as Cass noted. But he didn’t say where in that expanse he wants America to be.

To help people respond to this challenge, here’s a chart, based on the data from Economic Freedom of the World. In that “vast gray expanse” between pure capitalism and pure statism, should policy makers try to shift America in the direction of Hong Kong? Or in the direction of Sweden, or even Greece?

The bottom line is that we need to climb the scale (i.e., have more overall economic liberty) if we want more prosperity.

That’s what will help facilitate all the things, such as good jobs and strong communities, that Senator Rubio wants for America.