Strawman Elegy

The Wall Street bull in New York, March 7, 2017. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

I like and admire our friend J. D. Vance, but I do want to throttle him just a little bit — just a little! — when he says things like this: “The question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher, and are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?”

Is there a conservative who actually endorses “pure, unfettered commercial freedom”? I know conservatives who want to make it a little easier to operate a hair-braiding business without a license and 500 hours of “professional education,” and I know conservatives who think you should be able to start a moving company without asking permission from a preexisting cartel of moving companies, and conservatives who want Americans to be able to work from home without having to file tax returns in multiple jurisdictions. Vance works in venture capital. He no doubt has been within smelling distance of the SEC. Conservatives do not (in the main; there’s always that one guy) propose to abolish the SEC, or to leave banks unregulated, in spite of the constant Democratic claims to the contrary. Who is the champion of “unfettered commercial freedom”? Who? It is nobody in the Republican party, and, as far as I can tell, nobody writing in National Review.

Fetter away!

Vance worries about serving “commerce at the expense of the public good,” as indeed do most other conservatives. But that gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. On balance, commerce overwhelmingly serves the public good, and attempts to use the fat fingers and long nose of Washington to disentangle commerce and its social effects in a Goldilocks-satisfying manner historically have not gone very well. His complaint with Facebook et al. is that people enjoy using these products too much. I agree, though I’d argue that the real root of that evil is the mobile phone itself. (I’m in an airport lounge, listening to one of those cretins who insist on using a speaker phone in a public place. Brilliant conversation you’re having there, Caitlyn.) The press is full of panicked parents complaining about their children’s use of social media or, lately, Fortnite. I do not have a great deal of confidence in the parents of this country — I have met your children, America — but I nonetheless believe that they are better suited to deal with the addictive features of social media than is, say, Ilhan Omar.

But on the broader point: Who is it that Vance imagines is on the opposite side of that argument? We may disagree about how to go about best regulating business and nudging the profit motive toward service of the public good, but I can think of few conservatives, even radical libertarians such as myself, who in principle seek to serve commerce “at the expense of the public good” or who believe we should be indifferent to the question.

“Do we serve something higher,” Vance asks, “and are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?” Our strange new nationalists (neopaleocons, I suppose we should call them) ask the strangest questions. Paul Ryan was often held up by conservatives of this stripe as the mascot for soulless, market-dominated, Chamber of Commerce conservatism. But would anybody say that Paul Ryan had no conception of the national good and no sense of higher moral purpose, or that he was unwilling to use political power to accomplish those things? Every Tom, Dick, and Hillary in our nation’s hideous capital has some high sentiment to share and zero hesitation about using political power in pursuit of their own often eccentric moral visions. Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are precisely alike in that much at least.

How does that work out in fact? American cities are governed by people who spend millions of dollars on inclusion-and-diversity programs while the roads have potholes of practically lunar circumference. The nice people in Washington are practically Jimi Hendrixing on fine and noble sentiment (’scuse me while I puke and die) and will talk your ear off about “serving something higher,” but they can’t balance the books, secure the border, or win a war to save their useless lives. They cannot manage the federal version of fixing potholes, and the potholes need fixing.

Is there someone who actually believes the things Vance here is criticizing? If so — who? Because it is a mystery to me, and you’d think I’d know, running dog of capitalism that I am.

If the situation is not as Vance describes it — if in fact we disagree about how rather than whether to serve the public good — then that is a different conversation. And that might be a good conversation to have. But if you are telling me that the problem is Mark Zuckerberg and the solution is Donald Trump, I’m moving to Switzerland.

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