Anti-Market Conservatives Want to Fix Social Ills, But Their Cure Will Only Make Things Worse
Marco Rubio is the latest public figure to join the burgeoning anti-liberal and anti-market movement masquerading itself as being defending “the common good” from the greedy claws of the rapacious capitalists. Writing in National Review, Rubio launched an attack on the market economy under the guise of promoting “common-good capitalism.” After listing a some of the very real social ills that plague our society, Rubio, with laughable predictability declares that “deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics.” He does not even consider the idea that any institution other than the state should be “in charge” of solving social problems or that the promotion of the common good can be achieved without state imposition.
Rubio joins figures such as talk show host Tucker Carlson, New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari, Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, First Things editor Matthew Schmitz, and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, to name a few, who have launched a reactionary assault on markets and personal liberty in the name of increasing state power.
Rubio is correct that American civil society is in a sorry state of decay, as has been documented by people such as Charles Murray in Coming Apart and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Religious participation is at an all-time low, and deaths from despair are at an all-time high. The institution of the family is in obvious decline. Divorce rates are down from their previous high of 50 percent, but that seems to mostly be because Millennials aren’t getting married and starting families to begin with and are on track to have the lowest marriage rate in modern history. Even when families aren’t ripped apart by divorce, they generally have abandoned the important roles that families have played for thousands of years, being institutionally weak and fragile and turning the family home into what sociologist Pirtirim Sorokin terms a mere “overnight parking place,” rather than any entity that provides essential existential meaning for its members.
In response to these crises, the anti-liberals blame the market and freedom and turn to the state to fix them. However, in doing so they miss the fundamental role the state plays in undermining and weakening the very institutions they claim to care about.
Humans are social beings and cannot be understood in atomistic isolation. In his important essay “The Balance of Power in Society,” sociologist Frank Tannenbaum states that “man, as we know him, is not merely the product of society, he is the very child of a complex institutional system that conditions his survival and sets the stage for life itself.” Tannenbaum continues that human society has always contained four core institutions of society, these being family, religion, the state, and the market. These are the largest institutions that shape an individual’s life and development and each traditionally administers specific aspects of human existence.
According to Tannenbaum, friction and competition between these various institutions are a normal and healthy part of society and he explains at length a point similar to that of Mises regarding the fact that social stasis or the end of history can never be achieved and is merely a utopian fantasy. As long as a balance of power in society is maintained and the totalizing impulses of the various institutions kept in check these essential institutions demonstrate their health and vibrancy. However, society necessarily suffers when one institution comes to dominate the others.
Anyone familiar with the history of Western Civilization can easily think of times where institutions such as the Catholic Church or the clan-like family dominated the other aspects of society. When this occurs we observe one institution taking on the social roles traditionally carried out by the other institutions, often with deleterious effects.
Currently, we live in an epoch where the state has come to dominate all of human life nearly everywhere on the globe, and in doing so has subsumed the vast majority of the social functions of the other institutions that make up society. Whereas before, the family bore primary responsibility for the raising of children, socializing them, and educating them, the state has laid claim to children through compulsory education through which it attempts to mold what it considers to be model citizens. Whereas religious institutions once had the power to sanction marriages, regulate societal taboos, and carried out charity, all of these functions have been taken over by the state. As readers of the Mises Wire know all too well, the state has intruded upon every aspect of the market, with vast reams of regulations piled up into the rafters.
The growth of the state, or any other core institution of society, can only occur at the expense of the others. According to Tannenbaum, “every time the state assumes a new responsibility previously exercised by another institution, it necessarily is at the expense of that institution in a material as well as a spiritual sense.” Such domination is a sign of the poor health of the other institutions of society and their inability to check the tyranny that results from unbridled power.
The state obviously cannot fulfill the important functions it has taken from the rest of society and as a result has made an absolute mess of them. However, rather than working to restore the proper balance of power in society in which each institution maintains its correct sphere of power and influence, the rising anti-liberal conservatives desire to maintain the state’s domination of society and in some instances even increase it.
So-called “common-good conservatives,” like Marco Rubio do not actually believe in civil society at all, they believe that all of social life must be marshaled with the power of the state. Rather than decentralizing social power back to its proper spheres, they believe that the state should continue its attempted administration of society and that it should even annex more of the few remaining areas of social life not already under its control. When their highfalutin rhetoric regarding the common good and the higher ends of life are distilled down, the Rubio’s and Ahmari’s of the world simply believe that the state needs to be under new management (namely theirs), not that the church or family should be restored to their proper role. Far from being the saviors of society, they are merely the newest iteration of the long line of anti-social apologists for state domination.