Last month, I reintroduced the notion of the common good into our policy debates in a speech at the Catholic University of America. I did so, because we live at a time when millions of Americans approach our current challenges with a sense that, if the status quo isn’t working for them, they need to look at destructive alternatives — socialism, identity politics or ethnic nationalism.
In this fervid environment, if those of us who are strong defenders of the American system aren’t willing to ask tough questions, then we place ourselves at a tremendous disadvantage against proponents of these un-American ideological alternatives.
To challenge a status quo that millions of Americans are rejecting isn’t to show hostility toward capitalism. Capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty, more than any other economic system in human history. And no serious conservative suggests the federal government can better allocate capital than American families and communities exercising their own free choice.
Even so, there are genuine public problems that demand public solutions — and critics who deny this can only muster airy rhetoric. They claim, for example, that laws I have supported that seek to counter Communist China’s technological advance in industries critical to our national security would unfairly “direct the market.” Likewise, laws I’ve favored that cut tax subsidies for financial engineering over capital investment would “take shareholders’ property,” per the critics.
But these arguments are wholly non-responsive to the challenges our nation faces.
In the last 20 years, China has systematically moved up the value chain to challenge the United States in the production of many of the world’s most technologically advanced exports. The Chinese are winning this competition through a combination of stealing, cheating and state subsidies to their firms. The result has been the loss of millions of good American jobs and an uncertain future.
At the same time, American investment — the heart of winning the economic competition for good jobs — has decreased substantially as investors seek cost reductions by moving supply chains overseas. This has been great for corporate bottom lines, but not always positive for American workers or communities.
Domestic investment is increasingly in asset-light industries that don’t increase demand for labor in most of the country. In other words, the investments we do get don’t create good, stable jobs where they are most needed. Such investment might be useful if we desire a future as a nation of Twitter warriors — less so if we believe a vibrant manufacturing base is an important national priority.
These are substantive problems. Leaders must address them with substantive solutions.
Everywhere, we see the alarming symptoms of economic arrangements that ignore the common good of families and communities. We can’t ignore the fact that marriage and birth rates have fallen dramatically in the areas that had the highest levels of job loss due to Chinese import competition. But family breakdown didn’t allow China to dump imports into these cities; changes in trade law did.
The realities of a global economy are causing America’s economy to be increasingly financial- and service-oriented, while other nations are taking the leading role in the manufacturing of high-value goods. The result is an economy that fails to serve working Americans — and the national interest.
I don’t propose we give up on capitalism. I propose we examine the public policies our nation has in place which shape the type of capitalism we have. In our nation’s earliest days, then-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton urged Congress to approach manufacturing as a critical component of America’s future.
Half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy set America on the course to win the space race. Around that same time, the first Internet prototype emerged in the bowels of the Pentagon. Our challenge now is to ensure our policies are geared toward creating the type of dignified, high-productivity work that enabled our prosperity in the 20th century.
The Constitution requires Congress to be political: to represent the interests of the people, to enact law that advances the common good. And public policies that help encourage private economic decisions that benefit Americans would go a long way toward advancing that common good.
Marco Rubio represents Florida in the US Senate. Twitter: @MarcoRubio