WASHINGTON — The sails of Sen. Josh Hawley’s political skiff are filled with winds gusting from the right. They come from conservatives who think that an array of — perhaps most of — America’s social injuries, from addiction to loneliness — have been inflicted by America’s economy. Individualism, tendentiously defined, is the Missouri Republican’s named target. Inevitably, however, the culprit becomes capitalism, which is what individual freedom is in a market society’s spontaneous order.
In a November speech to like-minded social conservatives of the American Principles Project, Hawley said: “We live in a troubled age.” Not pausing to identify a prior untroubled age, he elaborated: “Across age groups and regions, across races and income, the decline of community is undeniable. But it is not accidental.” Well.
Time was, Marxists’ characteristic rhetorical trope was “it is no accident” that this or that happened. As economic determinists, they believed that everything is explained by iron laws of economic development. They insisted that culture is downstream from economics and is decisively shaped by economic forces.
“It is not accidental,” Hawley asserts, that there is “an epidemic of personal loneliness and isolation — driven by the loss of community.” This is a consequence of being told “that to be truly free is to be without the constricting ties of family and place, without the demands of faith and tradition.” Oh? By whom have we supposedly been sold this caricature of individualism?
Hawley says, “We’ve been told that liberty means release, separation.” Actually, the intellectual pedigree of America’s public philosophy traces to John Locke, who rejected Thomas Hobbes’ view that man is naturally “solitary.” Locke stressed that limited government is possible and desirable because human beings’ natural sociability enables them to thrive together without ceding vast power to government.
William F. Buckley once described a friendly intellectual adversary as a pyromaniac in a field of straw men. Through the smoke of burning straw one can see in Hawley’s social diagnosis the belief, held by many progressives and an increasing number of conservatives, that individualism, as expressed in and enabled by capitalism, is making Americans neither better off nor better.
“The statistics tell us,” Hawley says, “that we are living in a new age of inequality.” Actually, the statistics are complicated, shaped by assumptions about what is relevant, and can tell strikingly different stories.
Hawley calls it “unjust that the global economy” works “for so few.” Actually, for a few billion people. Globally, 42% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1981; by 2015, just 10% did. In America, The Economist reports, after adjusting for taxes and government transfer payments, since 2000 the share of national income of the top 1% “has been volatile around a flat trend” and perhaps has changed little since 1960. Among the poor, falling marriage rates, which have causes more complex than economics, indicate household incomes declining but not individuals’ incomes. Furthermore, statistics often do not reflect the portion of corporate profits that flow to the middle class through pension funds: “In 1960 retirement accounts owned just 4% of American shares; by 2015 the figure was 50%.” And The Economist also says:
“If you argue that [household] income has shrunk you also have to claim that four decades’ worth of innovation in goods and services, from mobile phones and video streaming to cholesterol-lowering statins, have not improved middle-earners’ lives. That is simply not credible.”
Hawley asserts, without demonstrating, a broad “collapse of community” across America, and blames this, without explaining the causation, on “market worship,” without identifying the irrational worshipers. His logic is opaque but his destination is clear: Because markets do not properly allocate wealth and opportunity, much of their role must be supplanted by government.
Confidence in markets and confidence in government often vary inversely. Today, progressives assert a severely limited efficiency of markets in allocating resources for the public good, and they proclaim government’s duty and ability to improve upon it. Increasingly, “Market Skeptic Republicans” (a Pew Research Center category) agree. They are selectively skeptical, having extravagant faith — in government.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.