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The Quiet Centrality of Market States

November 7th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

It is not overstating the case to say that Americans are having a protracted debate about the relationship between markets and the nation. The conversation is simmering in both of America’s major political parties and, somewhat curiously, it may end up being the case that the Republicans have the more trenchant critique.

The problem, roughly stated, is something like this: In an era of financialized capitalism in which access to capital is constrained and the returns offered by financial speculation far exceed the returns of labor, what ought the relationship be between the government, the nation, and markets? Though the post-Reagan neo-liberal consensus is staggering along legislatively, there is basically no widespread electoral support for it, particularly if we understand neo-liberalism as a socially liberal, fiscally conservative project.

The energy on the American right is gravitating toward figures like Josh Hawley, who has been nearly as aggressive as Democratic front runner Elizabeth Warren in his crusade against big tech. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s speech on common good capitalism, given earlier this week to the business school at Catholic University of America is of a piece with that broader trend:

Peppered with references to Catholic Social Teaching and specifically citing Popes Leo XIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, Rubio argued that American markets exist to serve the American nation—and if the markets are undermining the health of the nation, then too bad for the markets; they must change. (Emile Doak has outlined the particular changes Rubio would like to see over at First Things.)

In all these ways, Rubio is looking at the American nation, seeing signs of ill health wrought by our economic regime, and he is calling to reorder the economic regime. It is, perhaps, significant that Rubio is grounding his case by an appeal to the health of the nation. He holds up the health of the nation next to the economy that shapes it and, on that basis, proposes changing the economy.

Contrast that with Harris. Harris observes another problem concerning common life in America and how our economy works: American parents work till five or six most evenings while their children get out of school around three. Thus there is a conflict between the schedule of American businesses and the schedule of American schools with the result being that children are left to fend for themselves for several hours a day.

Harris’s solution: Increase funding for after school programs of the sort already common in some American schools such that children can stay at school until 6pm. In their writeup on Harris’s plan, Mother Jones notes that this scheduling issue costs the American economy $55 billion in lost productivity every year. Mother Jones being, of course, an institution with a long history of concern with the profitability of the American economy. Indeed, Harris sees the well-being of children and protecting the economic status quo in America as being a win-win: “aligning school and work schedules is an economic growth and child development strategy.” That she somehow manages to say that with a straight face is, perhaps, the most remarkable moment of her otherwise soporific campaign.

The issue for Harris and for the technocratic wing of the Democratic Party as a whole is that Kennedy-style liberalism of the sort embraced by the Party of Julia is always going to struggle to articulate alternatives to technocracy. The reason for the difficulty is obvious: The expressive individualism enshrined as a constitutional right by Justice Kennedy is deeply unnatural. It can only be sustained via a vast state-backed apparatus that creates artificial mechanisms to compensate for the many places where this sort of individualism crashes into reality—which is to say “through technocracy.” One can read government support for same-sex marriage as being one aspect of this strategy, for redefining marriage necessarily makes the government the inaugurator of human societies.

Thus we come to an odd conclusion: Rubio’s vision for American renewal is a return to the supremacy of the nation over the market, a foregrounding of one’s country as being central to a people’s life together and a subsequent willingness to submit the interests of the market to the interests of the nation. Harris’s vision, in contrast, presupposes market-states, a new kind of social ordering that sees the government and market being woven together in mutual service of the new humanity, which is to say in mutual service to the ambition and desire of detached free-wheeling individuals, and particularly the detached, free-wheeling individuals with lots of capital.

This is not to say the technocratic Democrats cannot pass policies that will make life in the market state less alienating. They can and almost certainly will whenever they have the means to do so. But it is to say that a commitment to individual liberation of the sort embraced by the Democrats will necessarily constrain and condition their ability to critique the market state.

There is no guarantee that Rubio and Hawley’s vision will become dominant in the Republican Party, of course. The GOP may well continue to bowing to a Viennese altar. But they might not—and Christians working in the conservative movement have resources within their tradition to articulate an alternative to Austrianism. It is far harder to see how the technocratic wing of the Democratic party can disentangle themselves from the thorny problems created by market states, for their entire vision of the good life seems to rely upon market states to produce and sustain the structure in which individuals can narrate their identities.

The future of the Democratic Party is almost certainly a long and sustained tinkering with the mechanisms that shape the market state without ever actually repudiating the underlying order. The Republican future could be a version of this as well and, indeed, given the GOP’s manifest disdain for the marginalized, it would be a worse version of the same thing. But it doesn’t have to be.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).