On his podcast, yesterday, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro took aim at a rival conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. Ben claimed that Tucker is part of a populist movement springing up in the Republican Party which needs to be nipped in the bud. What sparked Ben’s ire was a Carlson monologue which discussed Mitt Romney and the failure of political elites to address the concerns of working people. According to Shapiro, Tucker’s argument threatens to undermine the free market principles that make America great. Tucker, who denies that he is even a populist, suggests that free markets are merely a tool, and that no one should worship their tools.
In fairness to Shapiro, Tucker Carlson’s monologue was carefully crafted and written down before he read it aloud on screen, while Shapiro’s rebuttal was likely a real time reaction on his podcast. That said, however, Tucker Carlson certainly got the better of the argument. Here are three ways Tucker bested Shapiro:
1. Tucker Carlson argues that the elites of both parties are “functionally libertarian.” He’s right. The way Tucker put it in his monologue was this:
“Educated upper-middle classes, now the backbone of the Democratic Party, usually describe themselves as ‘fiscally responsible and socially moderate’ … they don’t care how you live as long as the bills are paid and the markets function.”
This might strike the typical conservative as counter-intuitive. Isn’t the Democrat Party the party of big government? Ben Shapiro gave voice to this gut-reaction when he responded to Tucker this way:
“how disconnected do you have to be to believe that the Democratic Party is functionally libertarian; they want to control every aspect of your life!”
This reaction is wrong. There is something libertarian about the Democratic platform, including their welfare proposals. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, “libertarian” does not mean “small government conservatism,” despite the existence of some overlapping policy preferences. Libertarianism is a form of hyper-individualism. Libertarians reduce the idea of a nation to a mere social contract between consenting individuals and the State. Thus, for libertarians, taxes immediately become “theft” as soon as they are used for any purpose for which the individual has not consented.
Understood this way, welfare policies are “functionally libertarian” whenever they replace religious and social institutions with the State. This moves America one step closer to a truly libertarian society—one where only the individual and the State are left standing. Tucker’s argument is that, while Republicans recognize the capacity of social welfare programs to erode social institutions, they have largely been blind to the ways a free market can do the same thing. Tucker wants Americans to elect leaders who prioritize the preservation of the social fabric over free markets. Shapiro has yet to give a compelling reason why we should prefer the opposite.
2. Tucker Carlson argues that Economics and Culture should not be treated as separate. He’s right again. Here’s how he put it:
“Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You cannot separate the two.”
Once again, this can seem counterintuitive to modern conservatives who have grown up swallowing a heavy dose of market fundamentalism. But, it shouldn’t be that way. The very word “economics” stems from greek words meaning “house” (oikos) and "manage" (“nemo”). Economics is fundamentally about how households order themselves. The idea that economics is an abstraction built on ethereal principles is relatively new, and misses something important. Tucker is restoring a more accurate understanding. Thriving market economies are an epiphenomenon of intact families, and not the other way around.
Ben Shapiro took issue with this. In his view, it can never be the government’s job to promote the family. He said:
“When you fail to pursue happiness properly, that is your fault. Freedom is about getting everyone out of the way, and then it is your job to actually pursue happiness.”
This isn’t the first time Ben Shapiro expressed this particular opinion. At Otay Ranch Public High School in 2015, Ben Shapiro expressed the same idea this way:
“The reason people are permanently poor in the United States is not because they don’t have money; it’s because they suck with money … that’s not even controversial. If you are poor in America your entire life, you are not great with money by definition.”
It’s hard to imagine a quicker way to create Leftists than by telling kids that their parents are to blame for their poor economic circumstances. But, even if Ben is correct that an ability to make wiser purchases is everything a poor person needs to escape poverty, hearing that message does not in itself provide them with the needed ability. If Republicans like Shapiro are comfortable with passive indifference toward those experiencing economic hardship, then their party deserves to lose elections. As G. K. Chesterton said,
“Those who will not even admit the Capitalist problem deserve to get the Bolshevist solution.”
Tucker has the right idea. Republicans should be in the business of finding ways to enable the poor to achieve the spiritual fulfillment of meaningful employment. When Democrat attempts to “give a man a fish” fail, the correct Republican response should be to become the party that will “teach a man to fish.”
3. Tucker argues that Republican politicians should put the happiness of America’s families first. He’s right. As he said in his monologue:
“The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, above all deep relationships with other people. Those are things you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us and would want if they cared.”
What Tucker is saying, here, is right in line with the kind of conservatism that got Ronald Reagan elected president. Contrary to a misconception common among modern conservatives, a strong belief in free markets was not something that helped Reagan get elected, but rather something that Reagan helped teach Americans through his presidential leadership. Reagan convinced Americans that free markets were evidence that America values freedom. But, what got Reagan elected was not this free market message, but rather his connection with the American working-class. It was of vital importance that Reagan was a former union Democrat.
The kind of working-class conservatism that swept Reagan to victory was summarized well by William F. Buckley’s brother in the book The Conscience of a Conservative:
“The Conservative believes that man is ... a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. … Conservatism ... looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand … regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society.”
Tucker Carlson has figured out that, these days, neither political party prioritizes spiritual well-being (also known as “happiness”). Democrats content themselves with providing for the poor’s material needs, but leave them spiritually impoverished by taking away their incentive to work for themselves. Republicans content themselves with the fact that poor people have iPhones, and do not seem concerned about the fact that regular Americans face a kind of inequality that feels insuperable.
If the two political parties remain as they are, the Left will win the day. That is because it provides the more spiritually fulfilling option. Leftism may create a nanny-state tyranny, but Americans can still get some sense of satisfaction from the idea that “we’re all in this together.” By contrast, when the free market leaves Americans behind, it also tells them “you only have yourself to blame.” Republicans need to turn this around, and the only way to do that is to de-prioritize market fundamentalism and instead focus on empowering workers with the tools they need to become productive citizens.