In a speech last week in St. Louis, Mitt Romney spoke about the “liberating power of the free enterprise system” and went on to say this:
That same system has helped lift more people out of poverty across the globe than any government program or competing economic system. The success of America’s free enterprise system has been a bright beacon of freedom for the world. It has signaled to oppressed people to rise up against their oppressors and given hope to the once hopeless. It is called the Free Enterprise System because we are both free to engage in enterprises, and through those enterprises we ensure our freedom.
For conservatives, this has been a terribly underutilized argument. When it comes to measuring an economic system based on its moral outcomes, there is simply no competitor when it comes to the free enterprise system. No economic system in history has come nearly as close as capitalism to raising the poor from the dust and elevating the dignity of the human person.
As Arthur Brooks and I explain in Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, there is a certain irony in the fact that capitalism is best at doing what it is most often accused of doing worst: distributing wealth to people at every social stratum rather than simply to elites. The evidence of history is clear on this point – the poor gain the most from capitalism, in part because, in most other economic systems, the game is rigged for the well-to-do. “The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production,” is how the economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, “which unavoidably means also production for the masses…. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap fabric, boots, motor cars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man.”
Beyond that, capitalism places intrinsic limits on the authority of the state. It requires private spheres of human action that are beyond the reach of government. As Michael Novak has said, in a free society the state should be subsidium. It loses legitimacy as it encroaches into areas where it does not belong.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that capitalism is perfect, that it doesn’t ever become exploitive and self-destructive, or that regulations aren’t necessary. True friends of capitalism understand that it has to assist people through wrenching economic and social transitions. I understand, too, that President Obama claims to be a strong defender of capitalism. But what I have noticed is that when he speaks about capitalism and free enterprise, his words of praise are almost always qualified, minimalist, and pro forma. Their purpose appears to be inoculation, to prevent his critics from charging that Obama is not a strong defender of the free market and limited government. Yet the president’s record belies his claims.
The last three-and-a-half years, combined with his previous records, has a unifying theme to it: Barack Obama is constantly looking to expand the reach and power of government. He believes it’s the solution to almost everything that ails us. He reiterated that belief as recently as last week. There is no apparent off switch when it comes to the president’s spending habits.
In health care, Obama believes the solution is granting greater control to government, whereas conservatives believe the solution is granting greater control to individuals. For Obama, the word profit is almost always used despairingly, as synonymous for greed, as though it is an impairment rather than the engine of national wealth. He believes there is a moral imperative for government to redistribute wealth. He accuses strong champions of the free market (like Representative Paul Ryan) of supporting “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” And as the president’s stance toward Catholic institutions have shown, he wants to force religious institutions and civil society to bow and to bend to the will of government. His goal is for government to manage more and more of our private lives – not because he wishes us harm but because he believes it is in our self-interest. That is at the core of the progressive theory he clearly embraces.
The president is enchanted with the vision of a government-centered society to a degree that is highly unusual in American politics. That wasn’t as clear in 2008 as it is today. And it’s one reason why the outcome of the election this time around is likely to be different than the outcome of the election last time around.