Creative Destruction

In the early days of the Republican primary season, during the politically bewildering scramble for advantage in which casino winnings bankrolled “conservative values” and voters struggled to parse who would most compassionately deport the most people (and how), Mitt Romney’s opponents looked up from the melee one day to discover—seemingly to their own surprise as much as everyone else’s—that they were attacking him from what is conventionally considered the left.

For a vertiginous moment, as the campaigns tumbled south from New Hampshire through South Carolina to Florida, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry departed from the obvious assault on Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” to deride him instead as a predatory capitalist. Gingrich accused Romney of looting companies to enrich himself, practicing something darker than “traditional capitalism.” Perry called this abomination “vulture capitalism.”

It seemed to take Romney a moment to regain his bearings and recognize the opportunity. But then he began bravely refusing “to apologize for being successful,” and declaring he would “stand and defend capitalism,” and expressing regret that attacks on free enterprise would come, not from crypto-Socialist Eurodems, but from fellow Republicans. “I find it, kind of, strange,” he lamented during a debate in South Carolina.

But it’s not strange. Can you think of any more powerful force for change—which is to say, any more powerful anti-conservative force—than the free market? The modern Republican Party has braided together a reverence for tradition with a devotion to free markets. But that combination has been fraying at least since Pat Buchanan ran in 1996, warning that Bob Dole and other candidates were “committed to a quasi-religious free-trade ideology” that benefited only financiers and big corporations.

“There’s no doubt there is an inherent contradiction between conservatism and unfettered capitalism,” Buchanan told me that year while campaigning in Louisiana. “Conservatives ought to be worshipping at a higher altar than the bottom line on a balance sheet. What in heaven’s name is it that we conservatives want to conserve, if not social stability and family unity?”

Of the Republican candidates, only Rick Santorum has sounded, at times, as though he may have given this matter sustained thought. He has said that Romney practiced “destructive capitalism,” but he seemed to mean that as praise. (Given a commitment to that kind of capitalism, Santorum has also wondered, reasonably enough, how Romney could oppose bailing out automakers but support bailing out Wall Street.) As he has spoken about the plight of blue-collar workers, Santorum—like Buchanan—has trained his fire on big corporations. It was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who were in thrall to Big Business, I heard him insist in January at an American Legion post in Somersworth, New Hampshire. Santorum declared he would eliminate all special breaks that “advantage big guys over little guys.”

But just cutting subsidies or even tax rates and regulations won’t restore the secure, well-paid manufacturing jobs Santorum said he wants to bring back. The problem for Santorum or any Republican who shares his concerns is that as an officeholder he would have few tools with which to help little guys. As a “compassionate conservative,” George W. Bush tried to use the government to mitigate the market’s creative destruction, by improving education and expanding homeownership. His dismal performance helped midwife the Tea Party and a hostility to government so molten that no Republican can afford to suggest any action besides slashing it. As for Barack Obama, he has shown depressingly little passion for overhauling government and restoring its credibility as a force for good in people’s lives.

Globalization and the advance of technology can only continue to heighten the contradiction (as the Marxists would say) between free markets and family values. As Michael Sandel writes in this issue, the relentless logic of the market is insinuating itself into every sphere of our lives. We are moving, he writes, from having a market economy to being a market society, in which everything—the right to pollute, the use of a womb—has a price tag. Here is a cause that unites elements of the left and of the right; here is a force whose less happy effects we can hope to soften only through the creatively constructive interplay of community, church, and government. When you think about it, here is a suitable task—in theory—for a committed community organizer, or maybe even a real Massachusetts moderate.