“There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez replied when confronted with some of her most factually-challenged remarks. It’s heartening to see the discomfort produced by her effort to excuse well-meaning deception, but it’s a little concerning that Ocasio-Cortez’s idea of what constitutes morality has not received similar scrutiny.
“We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do,” the congresswoman said in August, citing “100 percent renewable energy that is going to save this planet” as one of several moral imperatives. Merits aside, the morality of that objective is debatable. What is not debatable is the way Ocasio-Cortez and her allies hope to achieve it: by subverting the marketplace, which is one of the most morally sound mechanisms humanity has ever devised.
A draft resolution before Congress advocating Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” devotes an entire section to explaining why “incentivizing the private sector” to mitigate the threat posed by climate change “doesn’t work.” That is a sentiment likely shared by environmental catastrophists who believe that the only way to mitigate the threat posed by climate change is to “systematically dismantle capitalism.” In fact, the market is arguably the more effective vehicle for addressing their core concerns.
In 2017, U.S. per capita carbon emissions declined by 2.7 percent to reach a 67-year low. It was the ninth time this century that the U.S. has led the world in declining emissions and the third consecutive year in which American emissions fell. The power generation sector has cut emissions by 28 percent since 2005 despite sustained economic growth. CO2 emissions from the transportation sector have declined even as Americans drive more and fly less. None of this would be possible without the marketplace.
Federal fuel-efficiency mandates for planes, cars, and buses have put downward pressure on emissions but so, too, have advancements in aerodynamics, weight reduction, and transmissions. All-electric vehicle technology has decimated the demand for government-backed hybrid cars. Hydraulic fracturing technology, not federal mandates, has made cleaner-burning natural gas a cost-effective alternative to dirtier fossil fuels. Americans are using less electricity even as the economy grows, wages and labor participation rates rise, and the population expands. Internet-connected technologies like “smart thermostats,” which are recommended by both the “Green New Deal” proposal and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a product of the marketplace and gaining in popularity in response to market forces.
None of this would be accomplished with federal mandates, nor would the confiscatory tax rates Green New Dealers recommend make a dent. Some advocate dramatic tax hikes on dividends and capital gains to pay for exorbitant “de-carbonizing” programs and to soften the blow for displaced workers. But reducing the return on investments will only result in fewer investments, fewer startups, less entrepreneurialism, less technology, and less progress.
The environmentalist left doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of market skepticism. The populist right owns this space, too. Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson’s galvanizing monologue defending Donald Trump from Sen. Mitt Romney’s relatively mild criticisms in the Washington Post is an atypically incisive example of this genre of commentary.
Trump, Carlson contends, is the incarnation of a wave of populism that is cresting all over the world. That populism is a response to a smoldering discontent with modernity, and it manifests in rejectionist attitudes toward conventions like courtesy and morality. The root cause of that discontent, however, is economic disaffection.
Romney embodies the source of that disaffection. The senator is a beneficiary of capitalism’s capacity for creative destruction, and Carlson claims we have ignored the destruction in favor of the creative for too long. The Fox host brands the owners of capital as “mercenaries.” He suggests that free-market absolutists are idol worshipers. He appears to contend that the kind of essential communitarianism fostered by non-governmental mediating institutions is strangled as much by the private sector as the public. Carlson insists he isn’t advocating “socialism,” but he does insist that compassion and prudence demand that we file down capitalism’s sharpest edges.
Not only does Carlson’s argument appear to have almost nothing to do with Mitt Romney’s, it isn’t especially novel. Every market skeptic insists that curbing capitalism’s excesses is necessary to preserve the familiar compacts we cherish from the destructive pursuit of profit. Carlson sees Americans numbing themselves with intoxicants and committing suicide at record rates as an indictment of capitalism, but one of his proposed remedies for the malaise of the working class is—as it is for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and company—higher tax rates on investment income. There is no reasonable moral calculation that can justify Carlson’s prescription. The greatest good for the greatest number is a product of market economics, even the sort practiced by Mitt Romney.
When the pieties of the 20th Century’s Keynesians collapsed, so, too, did the global poverty rate. Wages exploded, subjective quality of life and objective life expectancy rose precipitously, and deaths associated with global conflicts decreased to proportionate rates almost unseen in human history. In 40 years, the American economy tripled in size. Employment in manufacturing has declined, but productivity in that sector is at an all-time high. Carlson laments the hollow soullessness of consumerism, but to conduct commerce is to reward labor and cultivate the fulfilling self-purpose found in work. Freedom is found in the capacity of individuals to reinvent and redefine themselves amid adversity, not the nostalgic stagnation imposed on the marketplace by a beneficent protectionist state.
The accord between the radical environmentalist left and the protectionist right begins and ends with a general suspicion of American-style capitalism, but that consensus can do a lot of damage. The invisible beneficiaries of the modern global economy vastly outnumber those detached from it, but the estranged are visible, tragic, and easy to demagogue. No one’s savior complex is satisfied by the fact that Americans are reducing their contribution to global CO2 emissions by consuming and producing as they always have. Markets are the most efficient vehicle for creating prosperity and freedom, and they create incentives to innovate in ways that ensure an ever-increasing human population. That’s something to celebrate. So why aren’t they celebrating?