Reflections on Libertarian Capitalism

Yesterday I found myself watching again Tucker Carlson’s interview with Ben Shapiro. Tucker distinguishes himself from mainstream conservatives by refusing to buy into their quasi-dogmatic attachment to free-market capitalism. The consequences that technological progress would bring to Americam homes, or the effects of vulture capitalism, are often emphasized during his segments. Unlike Shapiro, according to Tucker and many other social conservatives, these issues should be high on the list of Republican’s concerns. However, it should be fairly noted that his criticism does not go beyond a general skepticism towards the intrinsic freedom that allows the most opportunists to take advantage of the system. Carlson is not a socialist.

One of his main concerns, as well as that of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, seems to arise from an acknowledgment that something is changing too fast in America, especially with the economy and its industries. The incoming revolution in the automotive industry alone for example, thanks to the introduction of autonomous cars, could cause millions of Americans to lose their jobs. Driving is the most practiced profession in America, and if the transportation department were to approve driverless cars, seven million citizens would found themselves part of that ruthless cathegory the capitalist system calls ‘no longer commercially viable’.

But what perhaps distinguishes Tucker Carlson even more from — not only social democrats like Yang — but also neo-conservatives like Ben Shapiro, is his focus on the preservation of the sociocultural fabric. In fact, the most explicit of its goals has never been that of economic growth, but that of the preservation of family formation, the nuclear family which he often calls “the building block of civilization”. Those, with a general sense of belonging to the community, are his main concerns. “Sure, why not. Leave your parents’ grave and the city you grew up in and move to some soulless city and become a cog in some machine”, was his reply to Ben when he asked him: “Why don’t just move to a big city where there’s work?”, as if it were perfectly natural or in the interests of every single citizen to leave their loved ones and ancestral roots behind.

The first time I had the opportunity to listen to the interview, however, I inevitably sided with Ben. Give the state even more power to control the economy? No thanks. Prey to the false dichotomy that dominates the economic debate between right and left in the United States (and not only), which often sees a Randian approach alone in opposition to the egalitarian collectivism of old-school communism, limited by my own low-resolution mentality, I was almost forced to take the immediate defenses of libertarian capitalism. 

But my opinion has evolved over the past few months. Doubts about the reliability of analyzing growth from a strictly materialistic perspective (typical of neoliberalism) have increased. Using GDP per capita as an index for human’s well-being is useful in some context, but a limited framework nonetheless. Happiness, satisfaction, and spiritual well-being cannot be measured on an economic graph. Yes, it should be kept in mind that the capitalist economic system has made every human being on the planet materially more abundant than any other system in history—and we should be grateful for it; but we must not forget that economic growth has never been, and will never be the only factor to determine the stability and the general growth of a country.

The biggest flaw in the view of libertarians like Shapiro, but especially of progressive centrists like Steven Pinker, lies in their sole reliance on Human Progress economic-growth stats, and in their reluctance to consider the harmful effects that excessive economic freedom can have on the social fabric. Innovation is great, but what if it risks causing more harm than good? Enlightenment clichés like this is without a doubt the best time to be alive are superficial. Reducing your philosophy to low-resolution analysis such as those put on display by Canadian professor Jordan B. Peterson in his debate with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek last April, is part of the problem that often sees the American economic debate stuck in the past. Comparing today’s situation with that of the Cold War’s seventies doesn’t even get close in reaching the complexity necessary to put a finger on the contemporary effects of neoliberalism. Furthermore, Peterson, above all, should recognize that a materialistic analysis of human well-being has its limits.

If we want to avoid that our societies degenerate into a Brave New World scenario, or that people become so alienated by the atomizing, shallow materialism all around us (one that could lead people down the same nihilism that has already produced too many atrocities through the 20th century), it is better to find the right balance as soon as possible. Remaining aware and grateful for the many advantages that free-markets have given us over the years is an obligation, but not forgetting that numerical figures on a chart are not enough to measure human’s well-being it’s a duty. Modern capitalism, with its greedy, crony brother and monopoly-generating tendencies, goes way past the traditional free-market economy most people have studied in school. Or to put it Chesterton’s words: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists”. Seeing how most conservatives in the US often treat the principles of the free-market like the Christian commandments, it doesn’t surprise me how many on the American right are turning these days to Democratic candidates like Yang, and some even to Bernie Sanders.

Nowadays, the American conservative movement is blind when it comes to the problems of neoliberalism. Stuck defending the free-markets against communism, as if we were still in 1970, neo-conservatives like Ben Shapiro don’t seem to notice that the roots of the decline of religion, or of institutions like marriage, the shattered nuclear family, and the weak sense belonging to a community, are made even worse by capitalism’s consumerism. The crisis of meaning in the modern West and the increase of nihilism among young generations are not necessarily linked to the economy per se, but it’s hard to believe they’re totally independent of the same type of materialistic lens that characterizes capitalism’s liberal nature. What remains to be determined, is only the degree to which it plays a role in the atomization of the sociocultural fabric. As all of that happens, conservatives would do better to keep in mind that capitalism is yes, better than any alternative we know—but  at the same time, as Tucker said to Ben: “There’s no Nicene Creed that I’ve to buy into”.

by: Mark Granza

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