The country is going to hell and laissez faire capitalism is to blame.
"Families are being crushed by markets," says Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. "The American worker is in crisis," says Republican consultant Oren Cass. "The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities," says Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance.
One thing is for sure: People are angry. "Voters around the world are revolting against leaders who won't improve their lives," as Carlson put it in his now-famous January 2 monologue. It's hard not to be filled with righteous fury at America's elites—after all, we're getting screwed. Aren't we?
In fact, the data suggest nothing of the sort. Decades of what Ben Shapiro called "supply and demand economics" have brought about miraculous gains in human well-being. These are most dramatic at a global level: In just 10 years, extreme poverty around the world has dropped from 18.1 to 8.6 percent. But contrary to the picture painted by Carlson and others, the United States has fared swimmingly as well.
According to the World Bank, infant mortality in the U.S. has plummeted from 26 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 6 in 2017. Adult mortality fell by more than half over the same period, from 372 per 1,000 men to 180.
The opioid crisis is real and tragic, and it's right to be concerned by news that life expectancy in the last few years has started creeping down. But it's critical to keep these sad, scary developments in perspective. For all the problems America faces, we're still talking about a few tenths of a year shaved off people's time on Earth, on average. That's a matter of months measured against nearly a decade of additional longevity since 1960, achieved thanks to the wonders of the market.
Losing sight of that context—the incredible gains not just in the developing world but here at home, and not just in terms of gross domestic product but in terms of real health-related outcomes—creates a strong knee-jerk temptation to start meddling with the mechanisms that have given us so much prosperity. To demand that government do something, anything, consequences be damned. What seems far more likely is that the consequences will damn us.
It's true that the country can be doing well at a macro level even as certain demographic groups or geographic communities suffer disproportionately. Like Vance, you may think that concentrated suffering is reasonable grounds for government intervention into the market. But the existence of suffering is by no means a dispositive case. Every policy involves tradeoffs. Sometimes the proposed solution is worse than the problem itself.
There is also honest disagreement stemming from a real lack of certainty about the cause of many social problems. Why has it suddenly become trendy to assume market failure is at the root? Given global capitalism's positive decadeslong track record, isn't it possible, and even highly likely, that recent discomfiting trends have some other explanation? Interestingly, folks on the right didn't seem to have trouble accepting that cultural dysfunction and government interference were combining to trap people in poverty when the people in question were inner-city ethnic minorities. Only now that it's mostly rural, Republican-leaning whites who are struggling have they decided that too much laissez faire is definitely to blame.
Conservatives often complain that the left turns a blind eye to facts that don't fit its preferred political narrative. They're right, but they're just as guilty. They say people are dying but ignore how much longer we're still living. They say middle-class wages are stagnating but ignore the fact that cheaper goods have increased families' purchasing power and made it harder over time for the super-rich to buy a better quality of life than the average American. They say the market is failing you but ignore the reality that you're astonishingly more likely to be among the winners under capitalism than among the losers—and that, if history is any guide, even short-run losers win big over the long haul.
Arguably the most disappointing thing about this development on the right is how thoroughly it buys into "victimhood culture." But maybe that's how we ended up with such a striking disconnect between empirical reality and public perceptions: If the only route to social status is by claiming to suffer oppression, the surest route to popularity will be by convincing people that they, too, are oppressed.
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