This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
There is much healthy talk today about rebuilding America from the bottom up. Individualism is out; communitarianism is in. Alexis de Tocqueville, who worried about the corrosive consequences of individualism, pointed out long ago that America will stand or fall with the ability of her citizens to build a world together, in face-to-face relations. These face-to-face arrangements alone produce what could be called “citizen competence.” Not by accident did he think that citizen competence could develop and flourish within the middle-class commercial republic America was established to be. No middle class, no citizen competence. What do today’s partisans tell us about the middle class?
The party of the Left speaks incessantly of the poor — not with a view to how they can become competent members of a vibrant middle class, but with a view to how state programs may provide them with “assistance.” If this sort of assistance does more than supplement the existing mediating institutions already around them, it invariably produces debilitating, drug-like, dependency that is difficult to cure. If we really are concerned with the poor, we must do everything in our power to fortify the middle class, so that the poor may swell its ranks.
The party of the Right has done no better on behalf of the middle class. The focus on market efficiency and profit; on the “principles” of a free market; the contention that money is the measure of all things; the attempt to reduce to one single measure the necessarily multiple and conflicting goods a competent commercial enterprise must keep in mind — this is how Karl Marx talked about “capitalism.” Adam Smith, one of the great luminaries of the Republican Party, never argued that in capitalism money is the measure of all things, as Marx did. Smith never even used the word “capitalism.”
The very title of Smith’s magisterial work, “The Wealth of Nations,” alerts its readers that commerce and politics are two distinguishable domains. Smith’s apprehension was that the productivity gains generated by the global division of labor and globally extensive markets would undermine the geographically circumscribed political unit that is the nation (see “The Wealth of Nations,” Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 11). Who, he wonders, will look after the good of the nation? Of the three groups that Smith considers — landowners, workers, or businessmen involved in foreign trade — he concludes that only the landowners can have a deep and abiding concern for their nation. Workers could have that same concern, but they are too exhausted by their work to be able to demonstrate it.
The political economist, Smith believed, must understand that there are there are trade-offs, that we do not “live in” a market, but rather “go to” the market. Money is not the measure of all things. Our challenge today is precisely the challenge Smith worried about in his 1776 masterpiece: how to square the circle of global commerce and political health. The party of the Right in America has ignored Smith’s difficult question for decades. It has its economists, but no political economists. Some of these economists so revere market efficiency that they would be untroubled if the destruction of the American middle class was the necessary collateral damage of market efficiency. It was that attitude which Donald Trump — “free trade is stupid trade” — successfully exploited during his 2016 campaign, ultimately leading to the Republican Party’s implosion.
But squaring the circle of global commerce and political health will require more than rejiggering trade deals to shrink our balance of payments with China, and more than rebooting the manufacturing sector here in America — things the Trump administration is now attempting to do. America-centric trade deals, American net-export status, and a booming manufacturing sector will not, by themselves, nourish citizen competence. Economists are concerned with “market value.” The patriotic among them in the Trump administration want to square the circle by shifting the global balance sheet of market value in our direction. Citizen competence, however, requires that we be concerned with “use value” (a term Smith introduces in “The Wealth of Nations,” Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 4). Consider the three obstacles that stand in the way of establishing what is useful and what is not.
First, there is identity politics, which is concerned, above all, with finding ways to achieve moral purity. In order to cover their transgressions with the fig leaf of innocence, venture capitalists and commercial enterprises smitten with identity politics underwrite or make products they market to citizens also seeking to be numbered among the righteous. Those products have market value, but they will be of little use to citizens intent on developing competence. Virtue signaling about identity politics may contribute to GDP, in other words, but it has little use value. Nor will America-centric trade deals, American net-export status, and a booming manufacturing sector, if they peddle these sorts of products, help restore citizen competence.
Second, there is the largely post-1989 phenomenon of what can be called management society and “selfie man.” Tocqueville anticipated the problem already in 1840. Democratic citizens, Tocqueville wrote, would someday believe that they are “either greater than kings or less than men.” Because the glass screens they hold in their hands are sovereign, citizens can remove from their social media kingdoms all who do not accede to their self-presentation. In this sense, they are “greater than kings.” On the other hand, with respect to the political actions necessary to build a world, citizens today feel themselves to be “less than men,” and happily hand over the keys to the global managers to address their problems for them. Believing themselves to be greater than kings and less than men, the middle-class commercial accoutrements, say, of home and automobile ownership, will have little appeal. Such citizens will travel extensively rather than settle down, rent in cities rather than buy in Suburbia or Exurbia. When they do make their purchases, it will less be for “big ticket items” that bind them to a place, to a community, and to the drudgeries and joys of generative life, than for expensive gadgets with which they may peruse social media, play games, and otherwise distract themselves in a timeless world. The market value of these purchases may suggest robust economic health, but they cannot build a world of citizen competence, being of little use in that undertaking. Citizen competence involves doing, not watching.
Third, citizen competence within a commercial middle-class republic cannot be restored if its citizens turn the supplements to lives of competence into substitutes for them. Consider social media “friends” that substitute for real friends, online “shopping” that substitutes for real shopping, driverless cars that substitute for actual drivers, the digital world that substitutes for the analog world in which competence may alone be developed, etc. The opioid crisis sweeping America is a paradigmatic instance of a supplement being turned into a substitute. Devastating in its consequences, it is emblematic of the problem of “substitutism,” to coin a phrase, as a whole. The chasm between use value and market value is nowhere starker. Purchasing opioids may add market value to GDP, but it will not help restore citizen competence. We do not nourish competent citizens when supplements become substitutes, no matter what how much our GDP grows.
To be a middle-class commercial republic in which citizen competence can be developed and nourished, it is not enough to focus on market value; we must also ask the difficult question: What things will have use value to competent citizens? To answer that question, we will have to proceed inductively, by living as competent citizens, and rediscovering as we go what is useful and what is not. Citizen competence cannot be measured by market value quantities, but rather by use value qualities — this is a political rather than economic matter. Too often today, we think that if we get the economics right, the rest will take care of itself. We have this backwards. If we get the politics right — if we figure out, that is, what competent citizens will find useful for building a middle-class commercial republic — the rest very well may take care of itself.
Joshua Mitchell is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University.