We Don’t Need More Moral Elites. We Need Less Powerful Ones.


The rich haven’t become too immoral. They’ve become too rich. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Four decades ago, America’s rapacious capitalists and conservative moralists were singing in harmony. As the former lamented liberalism’s assault on free enterprise (i.e., their own power and profitability), the latter decried its corruption of the urban poor’s moral rectitude. In their collective telling, the welfare state didn’t just crowd out private investment or burden taxpayers — it also fostered a culture of single-motherhood, idleness, and instant gratification; a.k.a. a “culture of poverty.”

Thus, the goals of revitalizing public morality and liberating private economic power were in perfect concert. Slashing the safety net would facilitate tax cuts for the rich, and a rediscovery of the Protestant work ethic for the inner cities’ indigent. Curbing inflation would restore capital’s profitability, and discourage workers’ profligacy. And as poor men returned to work, and poor women lost their handouts, the patriarchal family would rise from the ashes of the welfare state — and social reproduction would once again be financed by women’s uncompensated labor, instead of the progressive income tax. Free market dynamism and moral traditionalism would go together like Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson.

Alas, the “invisible hand” had other plans. In reality, the one percent’s ascent coincided with the traditional family’s decline. Deregulated markets didn’t reinforce conservative moral values — they sucked capital from the most conservative parts of America, and concentrated it in coastal Gomorrahs. Breaking inflation broke the labor movement — and thus, the single-income family. Male wages fell, women’s liberation continued apace, and marriage rates plummeted. Adding insult to injury, the corporate titans of the second Gilded Age stopped feigning solidarity with the moral majority, and started getting “woke.”

Now, the face of the long-term underemployed has white skin and a rural zip code — and the base of the Republican Party has grown less affluent and suburban. And all of this has led some conservatives to voice a heretical thought: If “big government” can induce moral degeneracy and cultural decline, perhaps big business can do the same?

Tucker Carlson presented this idea to the Fox News faithful last week — and an intra-right debate over his blasphemy has been raging ever since.

The stakes of this argument are considerable. The notion that economic well-being lies downstream of moral health has been indispensable to American conservatism. If cultural values determine material conditions, then helping the poor requires spreading the gospel; if material conditions shape cultural values, then helping them requires spreading the wealth around — and that is one conclusion that conservative thought was born to avoid.

Reconciling this ideological obligation with rural America’s lived reality is no easy task for plutocracy’s apologists. After all, deindustrialization wasn’t a product of blue-collar workers’ moral choices, but of corporations’ financial ones. And it is hard to argue that the disappearance of stable, blue-collar employment played no role in reshaping civic culture — or depressing labor force participation — in the places that “market forces” left behind.

But the center-right’s foremost moralist has found a way to square the circle. In a column titled “Remoralizing the Market,” David Brooks defends the primacy of culture — and thus, the uselessness of class politics — by universalizing conservatism’s critique of American moral rot: Whatever unsightly symptoms of late capitalism can’t be blamed on the cultural decline of the proletariat can be chalked up to the moral failings of the ruling class.

Brooks’s case is unpersuasive. But its flaws are illuminating enough to merit examination. The columnist opens by signaling his opposition to economic populists, on both the left and the right, who argue “that American elites are using ruthless market forces to enrich themselves and immiserate everyone else.” Brooks derides this idea as “tribal emotionalism.” In his telling, the notion that America’s economic elite is using its influence over public policy to perpetuate a radically unequal distribution of wealth — meaning ordinary workers’ must check their power through class-conscious political organization — is “a simple narrative that separates the world into the virtuous us, and the evil them (the bankers).”

In truth, the answer to America’s plight is neither “free-market fundamentalism,” nor “economic populism.” It is moral renewal. Here’s Brooks’s (ostensibly complex and unemotional) narrative of middle-class decline:

My story begins in the 1970s. The economy was sick. Corporations were bloated. Unions got greedy. Tax rates were too high and regulations were too tight. We needed to restore economic dynamism.

So in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed a tax bill that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to deregulate the airline and trucking industries. When he came into office, Ronald Reagan took it up another notch.

It basically worked. We’ve had four long economic booms since then. But there was an interesting cultural shift that happened along the way. In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

… A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct … Anything you could legally do to make money was deemed O.K. A billion-dollar salary for a hedge fund manager? Perfectly acceptable. The Apple corporation exists because of American institutions. But … Apple parked its intellectual property in an Irish subsidiary so it could avoid paying taxes in America and support those institutions. It saved $9 billion in 2012 alone. This is clearly sleazy behavior. Apple employees should be humiliated and ashamed.

… As we disembedded individuals from traditional moral norms we disembedded companies from social ones. Human beings are moral animals, and suddenly American moral animals found themselves in an amoral economic system, which felt increasingly alienating and gross.

… Capitalism is a wonderful system … But capitalism needs to be embedded in moral norms and it needs to serve a larger social good.

Liberal readers might find themselves nodding along with much of this. Indeed, many of Brooks’s critiques of modern capitalism echo those of Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren (his message to Apple is, in essence, “you didn’t build that“). And yet, his narrative does less to spotlight the one percent’s predation than to obscure the forces that enable it — and thus, to undermine opposition to it.

Like virtually all conservative appeals to cultural determinism, Brooks’s argument mystifies the causes of our economic problems, then locates their solutions outside the political sphere. In his account, the Reagan revolution was commendable in policy terms; breaking the unions, slashing the safety net, deregulating corporations, and redistributing income upward “worked.” Our problems can’t be attributed to the concrete economic changes these policies wrought, only to the cultural shifts that “somehow” accompanied them. Therefore, the answer isn’t to curb capital’s power but to reject “moral relativism.” The government shouldn’t prevent hedge-fund managers from making billion-dollar salaries by enacting confiscatory top tax rates; civil society should discourage such behavior by shaming and humiliating those who engage in it. We don’t need to embed capitalism within democratic, worker-controlled institutions, but merely within “moral norms.” It is unclear how one is supposed to go about doing this (other than by, say, disseminating David Brooks’s columns at Davos).

Regardless, the main problem with Brooks’s argument isn’t that it proposes no straightforward course of action. It’s that his premises are patently false. Put simply, our corporate elites haven’t become too amoral. They’ve become too powerful.

The Gilded Age is not remembered as a time of “left-wing moral relativism.” If anything, America’s moral culture was even less permissive in that era than it was during the postwar period of corporate responsibility that Brooks champions. And yet, the hegemony of traditional, Christian values did not compel Gilded Age corporations to put social responsibility above profit maximization. On the contrary, the barons of industry sent Appalachian children into the coal mines until the dust consumed their lungs; paid industrial workers sub-subsistence wages and then met their strikes with gunfire; used their power over the state to preserve a deflationary monetary policy that turned small farmers into ruined debtors; and claimed a share of economic growth so disproportionate, ordinary Americans’ average height and life expectancy declined during the closing decades of the late 19th century, even as the country attained unprecedented prosperity.

Changes in moral norms cannot explain the comparative benevolence of New Deal–era elites. But changes in the balance of power between labor and capital can.

The Great Depression wiped out a great deal of ruling-class wealth, and opened up political space for progressive economic reform. The New Deal gave trade unions the protection of the state, and World War II enabled them to drastically expand their membership. Robust antitrust laws limited the scope of corporate consolidation, the Bretton Woods system constrained capital mobility, and confiscatory top tax rates disincentivized the contemporary equivalent of billion-dollar salaries. Meanwhile, the emergence of a second great power — with a competing, putatively egalitarian economic model — served as an external deterrent to the one percent’s rapacity.

In other words: Mid-century American corporations didn’t funnel a smaller share of their profits to top executives, shareholders, and overseas tax havens because they were morally superior; they did so because they were politically and economically weaker. They did not choose to devote a higher proportion of their earnings to labor compensation. Their workers had the unions and political clout necessary to demand as much.

These material conditions may have fostered a more communitarian corporate ideology and elite self-conception. If so, such moral norms proved highly contingent: When growth slowed in the 1970s — and high wages ceased to appear compatible with high profits — corporate America wasted little time in prioritizing profitability above noblesse oblige. Overseas competition, culture wars, and stagflation had badly weakened organized labor. Reagan didn’t kick the unions while they were down so much as he disemboweled them.

The “economic dynamism” agenda Brooks praises constituted a nonviolent counterrevolution. America’s political and economic elites decided that the inflation of the late 1970s was rooted in excessive worker bargaining power. As Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker put it in 1979, “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.” Reducing price growth required reducing demand, which required reducing working-class wages. To achieve the latter, Volcker engineered a recession by raising interest rates to unprecedented heights. This policy had its intended effects — along with a variety of others. The exorbitant price of credit in the early 1980s didn’t just drive up unemployment (and thus, drive down workers’ bargaining power). It also gave large corporations an immense competitive advantage over less creditworthy small businesses, thereby fueling corporate consolidation. Meanwhile, sky-high interest rates redistributed enormous sums of wealth from debtors to creditors. Combined with Reagan’s regressive changes to the tax code and labor’s falling share of profits, this produced an explosion of economic inequality.

“Cultural shifts” ensued.

None of this is to say that cultural values have no independent influence on economic arrangements. Our society’s moral intuitions are not mechanically determined by its Gini coefficient. Ideas matter. But they matter within limits. American history demonstrates that vast disparities in economic power have predictable effects on the “moral norms” of for-profit enterprises. When companies see a competitive advantage in exploiting workers, bribing legislators, evading taxes, or polluting the environment, sternly worded New York Times columns will not stop them. Only an organized working class can. All that “us versus them” talk might make David Brooks uncomfortable. But the choice before us is between “tribal emotionalism” and barbarism.