Marco Rubio’s Unpersuasive Critics

Senator Marco Rubio speaks at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing Jan. 9, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The senator offers a refreshing alternative to laissez-faire fundamentalism — and a new generation of conservatives is paying attention.

Marco Rubio, whom many thought of not long ago as a poster-child for the Republican establishment, recently opened a speech at Catholic University by quoting from Pope Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum novarum — a document sharply critical of both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. Rubio immediately joked, “I want to ask the outrage police for forgiveness because I have sinned, because I have once again mixed politics with religion.” Michael Warren Davis later echoed this sentiment, warning that the speech would bring an “inevitable charge of heresy by Acton Institute types.

It’s a strong word, heresy — but an appropriate one. The charges did come (almost immediately) and not just from the “Catholic libertarians” who comprise the Acton Institute. The most spirited attacks against the new Rubio came from party-line Republicans, while others came from left-wing Catholics skeptical of the sincerity of his conversion. The critiques from the Catholic Left, however, are far more Left than they are Catholic, and those from the right seem to think their particular Reaganite slant to be the only legitimately conservative position.

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One such anti-Rubio piece published in NRO was written by David Harsanyi. It suffers from some representative errors. First, he attempts to discredit Rubio’s critique of capitalism by pointing out the chasmic gap in quality of life between late capitalism and … early capitalism. Of course capitalism lays valid claim to consistent trends of material progress. One cannot simultaneously hold, however, that a) mankind was liberated by a massive socioeconomic revolution circa 1760 and b) most of mankind lived in a semi-servile dystopia circa 1907, as Harsanyi apparently does in this piece. Capitalism, however good it may be, is an imperfect system — it was not perfect in 1760, nor in 1907, nor in 2019 — and one that is open to tinkering.

The statistics Harsanyi cites to support capitalism’s progress in quality of life show only that we are better off than we were at the end of the 19th century. It is true that more companies are now offering paid parental leave than ever before, but the very concept of “parental leave” is necessitated only by the two-job households and the separation of productive work from the home and family that have resulted from largely unbridled capitalism. He writes that American workers have more free time than they once did, without recognizing that the 19th century (his point of comparison) was a time of extraordinarily grueling work trends when compared to earlier periods, as Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor has shown. That capitalism at the present moment is doing better than capitalism at its very worst is not a very good argument against attempts to rein in capitalism’s excesses.

Coarse-grained economic statistics do not resolve the debate. Of course the economy responds to different policies in different ways. But one could certainly dispute the importance of GDP growth against falling leisure time, disintegrating families, and rotting culture — as Rubio rightly does. That we might introduce policies to support family life and other areas of concern, even if they come at the expense of certain economic indicators, should not be unthinkable to conservatives.

Harsanyi also misconstrues Rubio’s reference to “dignified work.” He writes that American work is more dignified today because a higher percentage of Americans work in white-collar jobs, and because even blue-collar jobs “can be quite high-tech.” While Harsanyi might, at a distance, be impressed that industrial farms have robots now, it seems unlikely that this is what “dignified work” means in either the Catholic tradition Rubio draws from or in the growing body of conservative writing on labor markets. In fact, the prevalence of automation and technology in production is one of the main factors undermining dignified work today. The alienation of labor from production — of work from the act of creation, and of the worker from the world he’s meant to mold — is exactly what Rubio is talking about when he observes that so many Americans struggle to find dignity and fulfillment in the current market. It is perfectly plausible that the manual farmer tilling the land in 1907, whom Harsanyi so pities, found more dignity in the work than does a modern laborer overseeing the mechanical processes of near-automated farming. Fears that the American worker will be (or has been) replaced by machines are largely unfounded, but concerns that his job and his life are changed by machines, and that he may be worse off for it, cannot be so easily dismissed.

A more tangible, more demonstrable harm to the lot of the American worker has resulted from the U.S. trade relationship with China, and China’s aggressive strategy in the global marketplace.  As Samuel Hammond notes in National Affairs, “The number of Americans employed in manufacturing had held steady at 17 to 18 million since the 1970s, but fell by about 3 million, or 17%, in the first few years following PNTR [permanent normal trade relations, established with China in 2000]. Depending on the specification, 45% to 55% of these job losses can be directly attributed to Chinese import competition.” The dynamics of a global free market have left American labor unable to compete, causing millions of Americans to “feel forgotten and left behind,” in Rubio’s own words. Rubio’s common-good capitalism offers a set of positive principles as an alternative to dependence on China, while his critics offer no such alternative.

Harsanyi’s third problem is summed up in a line that I and many other young right-wingers find unconvincing: “Neither the market nor the state, I’m afraid, can make you a better man.” It’s meant as a rebuttal to Pope Leo XIII, who suggested that political economy should help to “make men better.” But human beings do not exist in a vacuum. The market and the state — two of the most powerful forces at play on a societal level — cannot help but form men, for better or worse. Acknowledging this fact does not require us to become theocrats or fascists in the state, nor socialists in the economy. But it can encourage us to pursue modest and prudent policy shifts in order to shape an environment more conducive to productive (and maybe even virtuous) life. Such modest shifts — a beefed-up child tax credit and regulating corporations’ ability to reinvest profits in their own stock, for instance — are what Rubio has started to propose. They are a far cry from the all-out rejection of the market that his critics seem to perceive.

This very moderation, which goes unnoticed or ignored by Rubio’s right-wing detractors, is the primary focus for his critics from the left. Commonweal, for example, published an essay by John Gehring lamenting Rubio’s neglect of unions and minimum-wage laws. Sr. Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service famous for her militant support of Obamacare and line-blurring on abortion, has expressed identical concerns. But these Catholic critics are too steeped in our current political environment to see the bigger picture. Evidence tells us that the minimum wage is a band-aid on the wounds of the working class that can end up forcing workers out of employment. What Catholic teaching calls for is a living wage, which cannot be mandated by law, but can only be produced by fostering a stable, prosperous and conscientious market environment — in other words, something like Rubio’s common-good capitalism. Unions, too, at least in their present form, are creatures of our broken politics. The Catholic Left has long romanticized labor unions, ignoring the rampant corruption and bureaucratic rot that runs through the veins of these organizations. Trade unions may well have a place in a Christian-inspired political economy, and nothing in them is inherently opposed to the free market, but there’s a risk of looking for Lech Walesa only to end up in bed with Jimmy Hoffa.

One gets the sense that Rubio’s critics are unlikely to budge. Those on the left have, for decades, conflated the American Left’s “social justice” with the authentic social justice described in Church teaching. Meanwhile laissez-faire diehards seem unconvinced by Rubio’s talk of the common good, and even skeptical of any politics that aims at the common good as an end. But there is a new generation on the Right that appears more willing to listen to his concerns. Welcoming them into the fold will build a stronger coalition, it will broaden both the foundations and the platform of American conservatism, and it may — dare I say — serve the common good.

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