Marco Rubio’s Half-Baked Political Philosophy

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on Capitol Hill, December 13, 2018 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

His ‘common-good capitalism’ sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren’s ‘accountable capitalism’ — and, for that matter, fascist economic thinking.

I  am a great believer in Senator Marco Rubio, in his excellent intentions, and in the undoubtable ability of Senator Marco Rubio and his excellent intentions together to screw up anything they touch.

Senator Rubio, writing in National Review, joins the ranks of those who propose to reinvent capitalism — “common-good capitalism,” he calls it. Senator Elizabeth Warren also proposes to reinvent capitalism and calls her version “accountable capitalism.” Dear old Bernie Sanders still proposes to overthrow capitalism and be done with it, bless his heart.

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, beginning from the premise that “workers and businesses are not competitors for their share of limited resources, but partners in an effort that strengthens the entire nation.” Under the careful tutelage of the state, of course. I write this as a fellow Catholic: God defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers. Pope Francis would do mortal harm to the poor of this world if he had any real political power; blessedly, Providence has relieved him and us of that burden.

It is the case that resources are limited — scarcity is an inescapable fact — and that firms and workers compete with one another (as do consumers; politicians never talk about that, for some reason). What to make of that? Nothing. Senator Rubio simply proceeds with his shallow moralizing as though these facts were not facts. Some people like Chevy trucks, some like Fords, and some of us prefer Toyotas built in Texas. Does the marginal sale of one of these vs. one of the others “strengthen the entire nation”? Of course not. Apple, Disney, Amazon, and Netflix are fighting one another tooth and talon for market share in the entertainment industry, and “the nation” has no especial vested interest in any particular outcome. Nobody really even takes seriously the kind of rhetoric that Senator Rubio here is relying upon. These are just words that come out of the mouths of men who want power.

And 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 several. For one thing, Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. For another thing, we know quite well, from long experience, how such vague and plastic notions of the “common good” interact with the discrete good.

Take, for example, Senator Rubio’s own servility on behalf of subsidies for the billionaire sugar barons of his home state, arguing that such handouts to business interests are a matter of “national security,” a position that the senator has defended by twisting himself into absurd positions that Bikram Choudhury himself would blanch to contemplate. I write this not because Senator Rubio represents the worst of what Washington has to offer but because he represents the best of what Washington has to offer. His heart is in the right place. His head is . . . elsewhere. Like most of the men and women who find success in politics, Senator Rubio has the wrong kind of intelligence for the task he imagines he is undertaking. He is clever, like most politicians, and like most politicians believes that a clever tweak here or there will make moot certain inconvenient realities such as economic scarcity. He is wrong about this.

He is wrong about a great deal. He worries about the “financialization” of the U.S. economy, which is largely a myth. (The share of assets controlled by financial firms has held steady around 2 percent for a long time.) He worries that the lack of satisfying employment in certain communities has led to substance abuse and a decline in marriage without considering the possibility that the unemployment is a symptom of the same noneconomic pathology as the addiction and family dysfunction. “Diagnosing the problem is something we should be able to achieve across the political spectrum, though even that seems challenging at times,” he writes. But Dr. Rubio has got it wrong. “Ultimately, deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics,” he continues. Misunderstanding the problem and then reorienting government toward the execution of a program of therapy dreamt up by quacks with no special expertise or genuine knowledge of the disease in question is exactly the catastrophe you get when you encounter the word “diagnosis” in a sentence written by a lawyer.

Capitalism is what happens when government respects property rights, which include the rights to trade and to work. What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” What we need from government is — government. The government in which Senator Rubio serves cannot manage to appropriate money through regular order, to cease its own ruinous accumulation of debt, or to secure a clear and lasting military victory over a rabble of half-organized fanatics festering in the wilderness of Afghanistan. So, no, I do not think they know how to run Apple or Facebook or Ford. If Senator Rubio cares about the common good, then he can butt right out while the people who produce the goods and innovations that bring with them such ancillary benefits as jobs and tax payments do what they do.

Which is not to say that there is no role for government in this. This is not a brief for anarchism. Government can — or could, or should — play an irreplaceable role in this by providing a predictable and stable policy environment (including in the matter of business taxes and regulation) that will allow firms to make long-term investments under reasonably stable conditions. Do you know what is not a synonym for “policy stability?” Reinventing capitalism. The federal government exists to provide public goods that are necessarily national in scope; in reality, most of the money it spends is simple redistribution of income, either directly through Social Security and other payments or indirectly through the provision and subsidy of medical benefits. And, if Senator Rubio would care to have a gander at the books over there at the Social Security Administration, it would be obvious that Washington cannot even do that right.

The nation does not need your philosophy, Senator Rubio. (Although, given how weakly articulated it is, may I recommend that you revise the part of your stump speech in which you make fun of philosophy majors?) We do not need your half-assed moralizing. 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 if you could manage that without bankrupting the nation, we would be grateful.

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