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“Common-Good Capitalism” Is Really “Person X’s-Good Statism”

In my latest column for AIER I explain that, because so-called “common-good capitalism” rejects the liberalism within which genuine capitalism is and must be rooted, “common-good capitalism” is really a front for the preferred variety of statism peddled by a “common good capitalist.” A slice:

In his important new book, Living Together, the liberal philosopher David Schmidtz describes (although he doesn’t use the term) the common good for liberals as being an effective system of managing the “traffic” of countless individuals interacting with each other in pursuit of their own diverse goals:

Justice [as understood by liberals] is our way of adapting to a miraculous feature of our ecosystem; namely, our ecosystem is populated by beings with ends of their own – highly plastic animals who choose (and sometimes second-guess) not only means but ends themselves…. Liberalism’s defining insight is that effective traffic management is not about agreeing how to rank destinations. Liberal justice does not task travelers with even knowing other people’s destinations, much less with ranking them….

When travelers respect each other in that easily understood and profoundly egalitarian way, implicitly treating the values of their respective journeys as presumptively (even if not necessarily) on a par, they do what it takes to constitute their society as a place that promotes value. Society depends less on people knowing how to promote value than it depends on people who share the road reading signs, seeing whose turn it is, and in that way knowing how to respect value.

If the economic system implied by this kind of common good — a common good that is real and remarkable — is all that is meant by Marco Rubio, Oren Cass, and other “common good capitalists,” then nothing distinguishes “common good capitalism” from capitalism unprefixed. But of course Messrs. Rubio, Cass, and other “common good capitalists” dohave in mind an economic system profoundly different from that which is championed today by liberal scholars such as Vernon Smith, Thomas Sowell, Bruce Yandle, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Higgs, and my colleague Pete Boettke. What each “common good capitalist” wants is an economic system engineered to serve his or her preferred set of concrete ends. Gone would be the liberal freedom of individuals to choose and pursue their own ends. Under “common good capitalism,” everyone would be conscripted to produce and consume in ways meant to promote only the ends favored by “common good capitalists.”

Note the irony. The economic system that, say, Oren Cass claims to advocate as a means of promoting the common good is, in reality, a means of promoting only the good as conceived by Oren Cass (which, for him, consists largely of an economy with more manufacturing jobs and a smaller financial sector). The hubris here is undeniable. “Common good capitalists” not only presume to have divined which concrete ends are best to guide the actions of hundreds of millions of individuals, nearly all of whom are strangers to them, but also are so confident in their divinations that they advocate pursuing these with the use of force.

The liberal doesn’t object to attempts to persuade others to adopt different and, hopefully, better ends. By all peaceful means, do your best to persuade me to embrace, as the lodestar for my choice of concrete ends, Catholic Social Teaching, economic nationalism, Marxism, veganism, or whatever other teaching or -ism you believe best defines the common good. But do not presume that your sincere embrace of a specific system of concrete values provides sufficient warrant for you to compel me and others to behave as if we share your particular values.

To the extent that the state intrudes into market processes in order to redirect these toward the achievement of particular ends, it replaces market competition and cooperation with command-economy dirigisme. Income earners are not allowed to use the fruits of their creativity and efforts as they choose. Instead, consumption ‘decisions’ will be directed by government officials. The result will be a reallocation of resources achieved through the use, mostly, of tariffs and subsidies. And by so redirecting consumption expenditures, the pattern of production will obviously also be changed from what would prevail in a free market. (In fact, the specific goal of most “common good capitalists” seems to be the achievement of a particular manner of production — for example, more factory jobs — than would arise with markets left free.)