Earlier this month the New York Times ran a feature on the newest discipline to come to college campuses: capitalism. Major universities in the United States are now going to start devoting some class time to learning about it. Which is another way of saying they will learn about America.
Conservatives often complain that liberals talk about conservatism as if they’ve only heard vague rumors about this bizarre species, mostly because it’s easy to avoid conservative opinion if you want to. But they’ll also justly complain that major liberal institutions, like the mainstream media and universities, don’t understand capitalism, and don’t seem to want to. Yet these institutions shape young minds.
There are many choice quotes in the Times article about the sudden interest their own country, but this one stands out:
In an important Wall Street Journal op-ed, Arthur Brooks point out that fairly or not, “over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.” This is a problem, according to the American Enterprise Institute president, because:
Citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.
Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.
Mr. Brooks, with whom I co-authored a monograph on the morality of democratic capitalism, lays out the case for how conservatives can make improving the lives of vulnerable people a primary focus. (The main reason to do so, Brooks makes clear, is that it’s the right thing to do.)
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.
The Obama campaign has a new 2-minute ad out, set to air in five battleground states, that accuses Mitt Romney of closing down a steel company and throwing people out of their jobs in order to make a buck for Bain Capital. It shows images of displaced workers, many of them at the end of their working careers, who are, not surprisingly, unhappy with what happened. It’s tough to lose a job, especially one you’ve held for a long time.
The ad is, of course, unadulterated demagogy. Never mind that the closing took place in 2001, two years after Romney left Bain Capital. Never mind that 2001 was a terrible year for the American steel industry. Never mind that ten percent of the jobs in America disappear every year as the economy endlessly remakes itself through the process of creative destruction that makes capitalism work.
I’ll be very interested in tonight’s GOP presidential debate, in part to see if Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry go after Mitt Romney based on his association with Bain Capital. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to avoid the topic (Gingrich did during his appearances in South Carolina on Sunday). Why? Because it’s clear the attacks on Bain — which conservatives rightly understood as an assault on enterprise and democratic capitalism — backfired badly on both men. They’ve been pounded by non-RINOs like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, James Taranto, Charles Murray, Mark Steyn, National Review, Club for Growth, and many more.
The tack taken by Gingrich and Perry qualifies as one of the more inexplicable campaign decisions I can recall; the product, if one wants to be generous, of desperation. (The “King of Bain” video may be the most comical piece of campaign propaganda I have ever seen, something you’d expect from a person with Michael Moore’s views and one-tenth of his talent. It has been utterly destroyed by fact checkers.)
Apparently realizing he may have gone too far, Newt Gingrich started backing off his attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain at a book-signing yesterday. And on Fox News this morning he defended himself from charges that he’s anti-capitalist:
A defensive Newt Gingrich, under fire from all sides for his attacks against Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital, shot back at his critics Thursday morning, insisting that he was going after a “very specific case” involving his rival — not capitalism in general.
“It’s legitimate to ask the question — and this is the whole Wall Street problem — how come the big boys made a lot of money and [others] went broke?” Gingrich said on Fox News. “And that’s not an attack on capitalism. That’s not an issue about the whole capitalist system. That is a question about a very particular style of activity involving a very particular person.”
Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are continuing to slam Mitt Romney for “vulture capitalism,” a phrase that NBC reports was “newly-minted” by Perry. Actually, it turns out that the phrase isn’t really that new – and this isn’t even the first time a GOP candidate has used it to attack a primary rival.
In 1992, Pat Buchanan seized on the term in a fit of desperation, and used it to bludgeon frontrunner President George H.W. Bush in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. The Boston Globe reported on February 11, 1992:
Patrick Buchanan accused the Bush administration yesterday of promoting “vulture capitalism,” and called for a more compassionate conservatism that would consider human needs.
With time running out to make his case to New Hampshire voters before next Tuesday’s primary, Buchanan is pressing to personalize his appeal in new television ads that show him talking directly into the camera about his views and with campaign stops like the former residence of a supporter, Steve Embry, a victim of the recession.
Mitt Romney’s main challenge going forward, aside from the general need to unite the party, is to find a message that refutes the class warfare arguments without offering up clumsy sound bites. If his victory speech last night was any indication, he may be finding his voice on this. He said:
President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success. In these difficult times, we cannot abandon the core values that define us as unique — we are one nation, under God.
Alana mentions an aspect of Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Mitt Romney that is less about capitalism and more about electability: that he clumsily (read: honestly) defends what many see as the dirty work of capitalism. This is a fair argument to make, inasmuch as Romney has a tendency to litter his campaign stops with cartoonishly unattractive, but accurate, descriptions of the free market (i.e. let Detroit go bankrupt, he likes being able to fire people, “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process”).
In his column yesterday, Jay Nordlinger writes of his pleasant surprise at watching Romney engage an “occupy” protester and defend corporate profits. Jay writes: “I don’t think I had ever seen a candidate do this. You’re supposed to blast corporate profits or change the subject.” Indeed, Romney doesn’t like to sugarcoat his defense of capitalism in all its glory, and the worry is that it risks turning him into the Col. Nathan Jessup of this election, just itching to turn to a liberal and say:
You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That the factory’s closing, while tragic, probably saved jobs. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves jobs. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that Wall Street, you need me on that Wall Street. We use words like market, creative destruction, invisible hand. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very economic freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way.
The attacks on Mitt Romney’s business career from his Republican opponents are getting nastier. The knives are out as supporters of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are trying to label Romney as a “predatory capitalist” who looted companies and put people out of work while making millions at Bain Capital. The spectacle of right-wingers blasting a venture capitalist they also deem insufficiently conservative as unfit for office because he oppressed the working class in the service of wealthy investors is comical if not ironic.
The charges are largely false. Romney’s efforts to build new companies and resuscitate dying ones created more jobs than were lost. But conservatives justify these absurd attacks because they claim the Democrats will say even worse about Romney this fall, rendering him unelectable. Yet the reasoning here is faulty. It is true President Obama’s campaign staff will do their best to demagogue Romney on his business record. But do Republicans think this issue, which allows Romney to highlight his success as a job creator and expertise on an economy that Obama can’t match, makes the GOP any more vulnerable this fall than the even more glaring weaknesses Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Perry possess?
It was, in it’s way, a great moment. Dumb and profound at once. On NBC television, singer Cee Lo Green ushered in 2012 at a Times Square studio by singing John Lennon’s leftist anthem “Imagine,” only he updated an originally atheist lyric so that it now came out as a multiculturally sensitive, ecumenical one. In 1971, Lennon wrote and sang about his paradise on earth, in which there’s “nothing to kill or die for/and no religion too.” Green changed that to “nothing to kill or die for/and all religion’s true.”
I’m very much in favor of “Imagine” as a living document. If you want to know what left-liberals are thinking at a given moment just listen to how they tweak this dystopian dirge to reflect resentments and sensitivites du jour. In January 2012, multiculturalism trumps atheism. Stay tuned for updates.