Tucker Carlson Feeling the Bern Illustrates Conservatism’s Hostility to Free Markets

Conservatism shares the same hostility to laissez-faire markets as modern liberalism.

Tucker Carlson is feeling the Bern on at least one well-established left-wing narrative: that corporations are robbing everyday Americans by paying their workers so little that many of them qualify for food stamps or other welfare benefits. Thus, the founders of Amazon, Uber, Walmart, and other corporate behemoths get richer while taxpayers are forced to pay part of their labor costs.

Carlson appears honestly surprised to be saying “Bernie is right,” referring to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who plans to introduce legislation forcing corporations to “pay back” the government by taxing corporations at 100 percent of all food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, and other federal assistance paid to their employees.

He shouldn’t be.

Conservatism shares the same hostility to laissez-faire markets as modern liberalism. Both are ultimately collectivist philosophies, hostile to liberty in general, albeit for slightly different reasons, and prone to economic fallacy to rationalize that hostility.

Economic Errors

First, to the economic errors. It’s hard to believe Carlson could get so many things wrong in under five minutes, starting with his general premise. He and Bernie argue the problem is the corporations not paying enough, resulting in taxpayers having to pick up the slack. But business enterprises in a free market are supposed to seek the lowest prices they can find for labor and other inputs. That’s how market economies drive down the costs of consumer goods and make all members of society richer.

The problem isn’t businesses acting in their economic self-interest; it’s the existence of the welfare programs themselves. They are an intervention in the market that distorts the price of labor. If they did not exist, the market would naturally set labor prices higher because employees wouldn’t accept jobs that didn’t pay them enough to cover the necessities currently subsidized by the programs.

First, Amazon, Uber, and Walmart are all publicly-traded companies. They aren’t wholly-owned by their founders.

Carlson implies these higher wages would come out of the vast fortunes made by Jeff Bezos, Travis Kalanick (founder of Uber), and other super-rich corporate founders. He says, “The Waltons could certainly afford to be generous with their workers,” referring to the children of Walmart founder Sam Walton. He refers to Uber drivers as if they were employed by Kalanick himself, calling them “his drivers.”

First, Amazon, Uber, and Walmart are all publicly-traded companies. They aren’t wholly-owned by their founders. Bezos owns about 17 percent of existing Amazon stock; Kalanick a mere 7 percent. The combined holdings of the Walton family are about half the company’s stock. The real owners of these companies are their millions of stockholders, not the founders Tucker and Bernie demonize.

But even if these companies were wholly-owned by their founders, higher labor costs aren’t paid by business owners. They’re paid by customers, in the form of higher prices. That’s how business works. So, it’s really consumers who are benefiting at the expense of taxpayers by paying lower prices for goods and services than they would if not for the welfare programs. And they are also doing what they are supposed to do in a market economy—seeking the lowest prices they can find for the goods and services they desire to consume.

Government Is the Problem

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is the problem.” If you’re going to have government programs that subsidize low-income earners, you are going to be socializing costs, but it’s dishonest to demonize business owners for this. Their lifestyles wouldn’t change one iota if the programs went away and labor costs rose. Yours would.

All Bernie’s bill would do is raise corporate taxes, resulting in bigger government and higher consumer prices.

Some movement conservatives may decry Carlson’s populist take as “not true conservatism,” but they’d be wrong. The hostility towards free markets—and liberty in general—is a bedrock principle of conservatism that goes back centuries. You can hear it in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and other conservative thinkers. And you hear it every day from the mouths of conservative voters who want to distort wages higher, either by force through tariffs or shame through “buy American” and other economic sophisms.

Carlson says Sanders’ bill is “not a perfect solution,” but would “return the taxpayer-funded welfare benefits that you have paid to their workers,” as if taxpayers were going to be receiving refund checks cut from the personal accounts of Bezos, Kalanick, et al. But the money isn’t coming from Bezos or Kalanick and isn’t going to taxpayers; it’s going to the government. All Bernie’s bill would do is raise corporate taxes, resulting in bigger government and higher consumer prices.

The response should not be to attack the free market and propose higher taxes.

The philosophical premise underpinning Carlson’s diatribe and conservatism in general is the primacy of the collective over the individual. What is required is not to protect property rights, meaning ending forcible redistribution, but for economic actors to act against their personal interests in service to the collective because it is only the collective and its all-powerful state that keeps mankind from descending into barbarism. That is what conservatives believe, which is why they never repeal any part of the state apparatus once they get in power.

Carlson is correct that many corporate founders and other very wealthy people tend to be left-wingers. And it very well may be true they support welfare programs and other forced wealth redistribution at least partially to lower their labor costs. However, the response should not be to attack the free market and propose higher taxes. It should be to protect property rights, including economic liberty, and make the case against government wealth redistribution and for allowing America’s former, voluntarily-funded safety nets to reemerge.

Further Reading

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