Tucker Carlson has recently caused quite a stir. He’s taken a very populist view of the role of government when it comes to intervening in the market, going so far as to suggest such things the mandated limiting of automation. To justify this, he points to the fact that as the market changes and certain skills become more or less in demand, many people get left behind. As coal plants shutdown, miners are left without work, as kiosks are deployed, fast food workers are back on the street, and truckers may soon be replaced with self-driving trucks. The solution to these issues, Carlson suggests, lies in retraining programs dictated by the government or subsidies to keep unprofitable businesses going.
On the other side of the issue are those who count on the free-market to work things out, people like Ben Shapiro. Shapiro and others acknowledge that some people will get left behind by technological advancement and the market changes that follow. However, they point out that in the end, most of those people can and do relocate or retrain on their own, and ultimately more people are helped by those changes than are hurt by them.
Both make good points. Carlson is right that it isn’t fair that people have to suffer in the name of progress and Shapiro is right that government intervention tends to exacerbate the problem. After all, many of those miners would still have jobs if government regulations weren’t making the coal plants shutdown in the first place. Yet, I think both are missing something important.
To get at what that is, we need to go all the way back to 2007 and the election of Barack Obama. Much was made – on both sides of the isle – about Obama’s background; particularly that of his role as a “community organizer.” Democrats considered it a positive, showing his concern for the people around him. Republicans mocked it almost universally because… few every really said. There was actually a solid line of attack on this – much of Obama’s work was with Acorn, a now discredited organization that did little more than encourage people to sign up for government benefits. Yet, that’s not what was done. During the Republican Convention that year, the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin spoke of Obama’s community organizer background in terms and tones of obvious mockery and derision, as though the concept were beneath them. This struck me as strange. Wasn’t the GOP the party of personal responsibility? Of small government? Wouldn’t someone who worked within his community to make it better be someone to lift up? Shouldn’t the GOP be wishing for more community organizers who worked along small government and free market principles rather than those of Acorn? If any of this was discussed, it didn’t make it to my eyes and years. As such, it seemed that the Republican Party was undermining its own principles with this attack. Many others thought so as well. I read more than a few comments from people saying that this attack and others like it were pushing people away from the GOP.
Fast forward four years to the Romney campaign. Everyone remembers the “47% percent are going to vote for Obama no matter what” remark and the damage that did. It made Romney seem even more elitist and out of touch. Again, this was largely self-inflicted, instead of leaning into the comment and explaining why that was, emphasizing the fact that the support for Obama and Democrats in general was largely based on false pretenses, the campaign tried to backtrack. Some of the right wing commentators actually did own it and try to use it as a positive. Unfortunately, it morphed into a “makers and takers” narrative, dividing the country between those who create new products and jobs and those who don’t.
The main problem with his line of thinking is that it tends to lump in the average blue-collar, and most white-collar, workers in with people who are happy to stay in the welfare system. Naturally, most people fit into this category, people who go to work every day so they can collect a paycheck and continue to raise their families. The maker vs. taker outlook naturally makes them feel left out, as though their own contributions are without value. The result is that people either stay home on voting day or vote for the side that at least pretends to care about them. If not for the candidacy of Donald Trump and his deliberate appeal to those very same voters, we would still be stuck in that same narrative.
However, we really haven’t found a solid replacement. The Carlson view tends to elevate the role of government more than conservatives are comfortable with while down-playing the market’s benefits. The Shapiro view tends to dehumanize the individuals who work down in the trenches every day, treating them more like cogs in the free-market machine. For the record, I think Carlson is aware of the potential dangers of government intervention and Shapiro doesn’t actually think of people as cogs. The issue that both are struggling with is to find a way to talk about the way a changing market affects people without falling into either trap.
So how do we resolve this? How do we begin to address the individuals that make up our society and recognize their individual worth and dignity without invoking the state in a misguided attempt to enforce it?
I had been puzzling this for some time, unable to find a satisfactory answer until the daily Mass readings brought to my attention a passage I’d read many times before. This time though, it seemed like a giant neon sign point the way to an answer. In Romans, St. Paul addresses the congregation in Rome, a group of Christians that apparently was having a problem with some people acting like they were better than others, and with the subsequent envy of those who don’t have the more visibly prominent gifts. I’ll let St. Paul explain (Romans 12: 3-8):
For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned.
For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ* and individually parts of one another.
Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
What St. Paul is telling us, is that we all have different gifts and as such, a different part to play. Some are more obvious than others, more significant. Yet, that doesn’t mean that others are not worth doing, even necessary. St. Paul applies the same thinking elsewhere, pointing out how silly it is to worry about whether the head or the foot is more important. The thing to keep in mind is that they need each other. The head isn’t getting far without the feet and the feet won’t have a place to go to without the head making decisions. Sure, the head has the bigger role, but it still needs the feet.
To bring it back to the Carlson/Shapiro debate, we need to reframe our discussion of economics to recognize the reality that St. Paul is pointing us toward. We all have a role, from the janitor, to the burger flipper, to the CEO. Clearly, the CEO has the bigger impact on society, yet he still needs others to perform their roles well. Bill Gates needed a team of programmers to turn his ideas into reality. Even more than that, patent clerks, lawyers, construction workers, and countless others had to do their jobs well in order for Gates to build his idea into the giant that is Microsoft. Are their contributions smaller? Yes. But they are no less necessary. Even President Trump owes some small part of his success to some guy with a shovel who broke ground on one of his properties.
What is the point of this? Why bring this up at all? By taking our cues from St. Paul, we can remember that every person, no matter their role has value, that they are contributing. That success need not be defined by whether or not you own your own business. That just because you are working by the hour and punching a clock, you are not a taker. You are a worker and a maker, making a life for yourself and those you love.
There are many questions to be explored in later articles such as social mobility, the role of automation, and how to manage when a business closes. This is not an end to the debate over how we should manage economic and technological change. Rather, it is a way to breathe some much needed fresh air into this debate.