U.S. Digital Service and taxes

Justin Elliott reports that Congress appears ready to prohibit the IRS from offering free online tax filing:

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system. …

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.passed the Taxpayer First Act, a wide-ranging bill making several administrative changes to the IRS that is sponsored by Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

In one of its provisions, the bill makes it illegal for the IRS to create its own online system of tax filing. Companies like Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and H&R Block have lobbied for years to block the IRS from creating such a system. If the tax agency created its own program, which would be similar to programs other developed countries have, it would threaten the industry’s profits. …

Experts have long argued that the IRS has failed to make filing taxes as easy and cheap as it could be. In addition to a free system of online tax preparation and filing, the agency could provide people with pre-filled tax forms containing the salary data the agency already has, as ProPublica first reported on in 2013. …

Intuit and H&R Block last year poured a combined $6.6 million into lobbying related to the IRS filing deal and other issues.

Devin Coldewey, meanwhile, reports the latest from the U.S. Digital Service, which exists to modernize existing federal services, websites, etc.:

The USDS is a small department that takes on creaking interfaces and tangled databases of services for, say, veteran benefit management or immigration documentation, buffing them to a shiny finish that may save their users months of literal paperwork.

… the USDS overhauled VA.gov, which is how many veterans access things like benefits, make medical appointments, and so on. But until recently it was kind of a mess of interconnected sub-sites and instructional PDFs. USDS interviewed a couple thousand vets and remade the site with a single login, putting the most-used services right on the front page. Seems obvious, but the inertia of these systems is considerable. …

These projects are often short-term, putting modern web and backend standards to work and handing the results off to the agency or department that requested it. The USDS isn’t built for long-term support but acts as a strike team putting smart solutions in place that may seem obvious in startup culture but haven’t yet become standard operating procedure in the capitol.

The work they do is guided by impact, not politics, which is likely part of the reason they’ve managed to avoid interference by the Trump administration…

“I signed up for a three month tour, and that was three years ago,” [head of the U.S. Digital Service Matt Cutts] said. “It’s really a whole civic tech movement here, there are a ton of people sort of holding hands and working together. There’s also stuff happening at the state and local level, at the international level, from the UK to Estonia and Singapore — everyone’s starting to realize this matters.”

I remember reading about the corporate lobbying effort to kill free tax filing a year or two ago, when lobbyists for the for-profit companies were trying to rally people under something like the banner of “Keep government out of the tax filing process!” I don’t think it was quite that intellectually self-defeating, but it was nearly so.

It’s a scandal that there’s a bipartisan Congressional consensus that is allowing the IRS to tie its own hands from serving Americans with a simpler filing process.

Elections and majorities

Ross Douthat offers a contrarian defense of the Electoral College:

Debates about the Electoral College, like the one that Democrats have lately instigated, often get bogged down in disputes about the intentions of the founding generation — whether they were trying to check mob rule, prop up Southern power, preserve the power of small states, or simply come to a necessarily arbitrary constitutional compromise.

These disputes are historically interesting but somewhat practically irrelevant…

Is there a case for a system that sometimes produces undemocratic outcomes? I think so, on two grounds. First, it creates incentives for political parties and candidates to seek supermajorities rather than just playing for 50.1 percent, because the latter play is a losing one more often than in a popular-vote presidential system.

Second, it creates incentives for political parties to try to break regional blocs controlled by the opposition, rather than just maximizing turnout in their own areas, because you win the presidency consistently only as a party of multiple regions and you can crack a rival party’s narrow majority by flipping a few states.

According to this — admittedly contrarian — theory, the fact that the Electoral College produces chaotic or undemocratic outcomes in moments of ideological or regional polarization is actually a helpful thing, insofar as it drives politicians and political hacks (by nature not the most creative types) to think bigger than regional blocs and 51 percent majorities.

The principle of federalism is almost never raised when I see the Electoral College’s merits brought up. Transitioning to a national popular vote would only make worse the present state of affairs, where governors and states act as little more than regional territorial managers for a central federal apparatus. A national popular vote would also lead to enormous disengagement from constituencies whose interests would be more or less permanently shut out, and that alone is a recipe for weakening the body politic.

But whatever present debate really exists over the Electoral College can be answered more simply by point out that Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency thanks so much to a flawed or outdated electoral system, as he did thanks to the failure of Hillary Clinton’s get-out-the-vote efforts: “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states…

If those 80,000 people had voted differently, would there be hand-wringing about a supposedly outmoded system? No.

Mueller and the reputation of the media

Robert Mueller’s investigation is over. The New York Times reports “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,” reporting that the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Matt Taibbi writes:

Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media. …

Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population, a group that (perhaps thanks to this story) is now larger than his original base. As Baker notes, a full 50.3% of respondents in a poll conducted this month said they agree with Trump the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.”

Stories have been coming out for some time now hinting Mueller’s final report might leave audiences “disappointed,” as if a President not being a foreign spy could somehow be bad news. …

In the early months of this scandal, the New York Times said Trump’s campaign had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence; the Wall Street Journal told us our spy agencies were withholding intelligence from the new President out of fear he was compromised; news leaked out our spy chiefs had even told other countries like Israel not to share their intel with us, because the Russians might have “leverages of pressure” on Trump.

CNN told us Trump officials had been in “constant contact” with “Russians known to U.S. intelligence,” and the former director of the CIA, who’d helped kick-start the investigation that led to Mueller’s probe, said the President was guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” committing acts “nothing short of treasonous.” 

Hillary Clinton insisted Russians “could not have known how to weaponize” political ads unless they’d been “guided” by Americans. Asked if she meant Trump, she said, “It’s pretty hard not to.” Harry Reid similarly said he had “no doubt” that the Trump campaign was “in on the deal” to help Russians with the leak. 

None of this has been walked back. To be clear, if Trump were being blackmailed by Russian agencies like the FSB or the GRU, if he had any kind of relationship with Russian intelligence, that would soar over the “overwhelming and bipartisan” standard, and Nancy Pelosi would be damning torpedoes for impeachment right now. 

There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included. Honest reporters like ABC’s Terry Moran understand: Mueller coming back empty-handed on collusion means a “reckoning for the media.” 

Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is). But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.

‘Persuading people to buy less stuff’

When I was in Charlotte in October, I got into a conversation with a manufacturer who told me that China was no longer going to be accepting a lot of our recycling. He told me this was going to be a huge problem for companies and municipalities across the country that have been spending decades trying to get people to recycle, because American recyclers wouldn’t be able to compete on cost, among other reasons. I thought of that conversation when I read Alana Semuels’s piece today:

After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

But now much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.

For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

Most are choosing the latter. …

In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. …

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff…

America’s present economy is fueled by consumption that is fueled in part by historically unknown levels of national debt.

Forward Operating Base Shank

J.P. Lawrence writes on what we’ve left behind in the form of ex-American military base in Afghanistan, and what it reveals about our approach to our presence there:

Limping as he climbed the stairs of a watchtower, the general turned his gaze south toward a once-sprawling base the Americans handed over to Afghan forces here in late 2014. Today much of it lies in ruins.

“Everything went to pieces,” Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Safi said of the base, which the Americans dubbed Forward Operating Base Shank. “Everything fell apart.”

After more than 17 years and $80 billion to build them up, Afghan security forces still struggle to secure their country, while corruption and other challenges strain their ability to maintain equipment and facilities provided by foreign forces, largely the United States.

FOB Shank’s fate — left to rot in the hands of overwhelmed Afghans — illustrates those challenges…

Roaming packs of feral dogs now bed down at what was once Shank’s busy helicopter landing pad. Crows pick over scrap heaps amid metal tent skeletons whose torn plastic skins whip in the wind. Snow blows through collapsed walls of wood huts that once housed military offices.

As more Americans have been pushed out to Dahlke to advise front line units in the past year, U.S. troops have forayed into the wasteland to reclaim abandoned equipment, such as heaters and generators.

“You drive through and it’s like the ‘Walking Dead,’” 1st Lt. Tom Kopec, 26, a soldier in the 1st Cavalry Regiment, said in December. …

Even with a base full of troops, Safi couldn’t afford to maintain it, he said, claiming the facilities are too costly to run. Everything the Americans left requires power, he said, even bathroom door locks his troops have replaced with ordinary padlocks.

Despite $2 billion in U.S.-funded power projects, Afghanistan’s grid remains underdeveloped and unreliable, and bases often depend on electric generators to power lights, heaters and other equipment.

For just one of the big tents now rotting in Zombieland, the Americans would burn about 80 gallons of fuel a night, said Safi, who spent hours one January morning searching room to room in his headquarters for a working heater.

“Where are Afghans supposed to get that much fuel?” Safi asked. He said later: “The Americans, money has no value for them.” …

“We were being less than truthful with ourselves that the Afghans would be able to take care of these bases,” [retired General Richard P.] Mills said.

Thinking back on our most recent September 11th.

Curtailing civil asset forfeiture

Mark Sherman reports on today’s U.S. Supreme Court Timbs v. Indiana ruling, which is a major victory for reigning in states that abuse civil asset forfeiture:

Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.

The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence” because fines are a source of revenue. …

Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, was charged in 2013 with selling $400 worth of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest but faced no prison time. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he had bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality.

A judge in Indiana had ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana’s top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.

Here’s C.J. Ciaramella for context on this practice:

2018 was a bad year for civil asset forfeiture, the infamous practice by which police can seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime.

In late summer, Philadelphia settled a federal class-action lawsuit over its aggressive asset forfeiture program. (How aggressive? One 78-year-old pensioner had $2,000 seized after police found her possessing a small amount of marijuana, which her retired husband used to alleviate his arthritis.) The city agreed to drastically curtail when and how it seizes property from residents and to set up a $3 million fund for victims of its sticky-fingered cops.

Asset forfeiture will continue in Philadelphia, albeit in a limited form. But the salad days when police and prosecutors could seize 300 to 500 homes a year, according to the lawsuit, are now over.

Earlier in the summer, a federal judge struck down Albuquerque’s asset forfeiture program, ruling the city “has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, which previously seemed reluctant to interfere in such cases, has agreed to consider an asset forfeiture challenge out of Indiana. … Justice Clarence Thomas also sharply criticized the practice in a 2017 dissent in a different case. “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he wrote.

When agents of the government can “seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime,” it should be clear enough that there’s a problem.

Arguing well

Ian Lindquist writes on BASIS Curriculum Schools:

Founded in 1998 in Tucson by Michael and Olga Block with the mandate of providing rigorous instruction to enable Arizona students to compete internationally with their peers, the BASIS Curriculum Schools network now includes 27 charter schools, 5 independent schools, and 5 international schools in China and the Czech Republic. The original BASIS Curriculum model emphasized rigorous education in math and science and a lot of high-level learning in subjects considered off the beaten path for younger students, like logic, economics, and Mandarin. As a result, the network’s charters have, in the past few years, gained a reputation for excellence and now compete with some of the best schools in the country in the annual rankings in U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Indeed, the top five public high schools in the country, according to U.S. News, are all BASIS charter schools.

BASIS will now attempt to address the reluctance among young Americans to enter into genuine intellectual debate. In the fall of 2019, the network plans to launch a program for grades 8 through 10 at its independent school in McLean, Virginia, emphasizing liberal education. …

At the center of the program is the belief that students benefit by learning how to argue respectfully and that such an education will make them better citizens. …

Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS, reports that each history class in the new program will have 2 teachers who will convene 20 students around a seminar table. The teachers, whom Bezanson says will have different viewpoints on the historical material, will have one shared ideal: a commitment to encouraging students to debate, disagree, and discuss, and to model reasonable debate and disagreement for them.

To argue well is something like the opposite of quarreling or fighting or any of the sort of public trivia that contemporary news presents to the public. I think that arguing well requires the sort of virtues that Lindquist outlines, and it also requires a shared vocabulary, a shared commitment to the possibility of objective truth and, ideally, agreement on the telos of human life:

To prepare teachers for a classroom hospitable to debate and discussion, Bezanson plans to send teachers from the BASIS Curriculum Schools network to study at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, each summer. St. John’s is the natural choice for BASIS teachers because its course of study is grounded in the twin pillars of the great books and Socratic seminars. Seminar participants sit around a table and discuss the work at hand for two hours at a time. As a former St. John’s undergraduate student, I can attest that in this environment debate and disagreement thrive. And as Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times, this is not because the St. John’s classroom is full of animosity, but because students sharpen their minds as they spend so much time interrogating texts.

Emily Langston, associate dean for graduate programs at St. John’s, says that the St. John’s classroom is based on two suppositions: “The idea that the text has something to teach us” and the fact that “we don’t all think the same thing about the text.” Indeed, “the idea that we can disagree and be respectful and, in doing so, learn from each other, is part of what community means.” Disagreement and discussion are the fabric of community, not its antithesis. …

Discussion based on a text in a seminar-style format helps students achieve aptitude and high-level practice in the four grammatical skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These are critical and essential to any further education. They’re also, in many cases, requisite for a meaningful life in literate society.

Most importantly, seminars inherently teach how to be a citizen in a liberal society by teaching participants how to weigh words, and, in doing so, practice a standard of truth and goodness. Students learn to recognize words that demonstrate the truth of a point rather than trusting the authority of the one who speaks them. This inculcates a taste for demonstrable truth and persuasive argument and a distaste for propaganda.

Seminars allow students to enter into a shared space with their peers even as they disagree. There is no sarcasm, no withholding of oneself or one’s efforts from the group, which means that two people can disagree on almost every point of interpretation about a text while still sharing something fundamental: common and equal investment in the discussion. …

Around the seminar table is where citizenship is best forged—face-to-face, peer-to-peer. It’s an encouraging sign that BASIS, already a leader in K-12 education, recognizes a need to train students in habits that will make them good friends, neighbors, and citizens.

Governing in our own century

Daniel McCarthy writes that “America’s fundamental political choice now is between mild nationalism, resurgent socialism, or suicide by liberalism, whether of the libertarian or palliative sort:”

That being the case, how would the nationalist alternative work?

It would begin by rejecting propaganda about the end of the export economy. World population is still growing, and growing wealthier, which means there are more people around the world increasingly capable of buying goods made in America. We sacrificed some of our competitive advantage after World War II for the sake of Cold War strategy, and we were right to do so. But now the time has come to compete to the utmost, at once politically and economically, with our rivals, above all China. That means driving bargains to open markets for our goods while permitting access to our markets—still the most desirable in the world—on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just as consumers. The argument that the loss of manufacturing jobs to technology excuses the extinction of manufacturing employment is not an argument at all. What follows is that we ought to minimize the loss of employment due to every factor not technologically inevitable, such as ill-conceived trade deals. Tariffs are not an end in themselves, of course: They are a defensive measure and a source of leverage.

President Trump’s instincts are correct about immigration as well: It is in need of reform that puts citizens first, with emphasis on supporting higher wages for workers. Less low-skill immigration puts upward pressure on wages. And what if there just aren’t enough American workers to fill all the jobs? That’s good, too, because, other things being equal, it encourages larger family size. When parents see opportunities for their children in a world in which more labor is needed, they have confidence to have more children. This is why populations everywhere boom at the onset of an industrial revolution, and it’s a reason why frontier settler populations so often have such high rates of family formation. Get employment growing again for Americans who are not already on the top of the heap, and their families can grow again, too. …

The idea that economic nationalism is not compatible with free-market economics is absurd. The history of America from the founding to the New Deal belies the idea that nationalist economics is bad for business or growth. Its virtue is that it is good for labor and political stability as well. From growth, a contented middle class, and moderate political culture flow a strong country and stronger families and citizens. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, when nations and supranational institutions are in turmoil, those benefits are of existential significance.

The ideal of Jefferson’s agrarian America (as distinct from its too often plantation-based reality) was a nation of virtuous yeomanry—small, independent farmers capable of providing for their families themselves. Abraham Lincoln’s vision was of a country in which working men, not only farmers, could improve their standards of life. In the twentieth century, the American dream became a thing to which every salaryman could aspire: a good job; enough money to buy a house, start a family, and retire; and the chance to watch one’s children rise to a higher station. In the twenty-first century, that dream has given way to delirium—feverish uncertainty about whether in midlife one will have to become an Amazon deliveryman or a Walmart greeter, and anxiety about whether one’s children will be tech-company winners or endlessly indebted gig workers.

We need to accept the responsibilities of leadership. That means governing in the century in which we actually live rather than the one shaped by our political heroes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world began to change, and our country with it. Those changes have accelerated and are now threatening to tear us apart. The way forward requires refocusing on the American citizen as the basic unit of the economy. This is the essence of a nationalist political economy, which we very much need if our country’s tradition of personal independence and limited government is to endure, a tradition in which government’s primary economic role is not to provide welfare but to safeguard the conditions that make productive work possible.

“Culture comes first,” McCarthy writes, “but like a final cause or end in Aristotle’s philosophy, it is first in priority, not necessarily first in time or action. We need to bring this truth forward, for we’ve forgotten it over the past few decades.” McCarthy’s piece is worthwhile for perspective on something that millions of Americans across the political spectrum feel: that fundamentals are at risk of breaking in our body politic.

What makes Dan McCarthy a consistently interesting writer is that he’s concerned with what so many political and cultural writers ignore: first principles.

Jack Bogle, RIP

Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, has died. Art Carey and Erin Arvedlund report:

John C. Bogle, 89, who revolutionized the way Americans save for the future, championed the interests of the small investor, and railed against corporate greed and the excesses of Wall Street, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Bryn Mawr, his family confirmed.

Mr. Bogle, a chipper and unpretentious man who invited everyone to call him “Jack,” was founder and for many years chairman of the Vanguard Group, the Malvern-based mutual-fund company, where he pioneered low-cost, low-fee investing and mutual funds tied to stock-market indexes. These innovations, reviled and ridiculed at first, enabled millions of ordinary Americans to build wealth to buy a home, pay for college, and retire comfortably.

Along the way, Vanguard, which Mr. Bogle launched in 1974, became a titan in the financial-services industry, with 16,600 employees and over $5 trillion in assets by the end of 2018, and Mr. Bogle earned a reputation as not only an investing sage but a maverick whose integrity and old-fashioned values set an example that many admired and few could match.

“Jack could have been a multibillionaire on a par with Gates and Buffett,” said William Bernstein, an Oregon investment manager and author of 12 books on finance and economic history. Instead, he turned his company into one owned by its mutual funds, and in turn their investors, “that exists to provide its customers the lowest price. He basically chose to forgo an enormous fortune to do something right for millions of people. I don’t know any other story like it in American business history.” …

While Mr. Bogle was facile with numbers, he was much less interested in counting than in what counts, and his intellectual range was broad. He revered language, history, poetry, and classical wisdom, and frequently amazed and delighted people by reciting long passages of verse. …

Mr. Bogle had hoped that the Vanguard model — “structurally correct, mathematically correct, and ethically correct” — would goad other investment firms to give customers a fairer shake. While index funds have become widely popular, Vanguard’s competitors often have been less than keen about following the company’s penny-pinching lead. …

When he was not touting the advantages of the Vanguard mode of investing, Mr. Bogle, a self-proclaimed “battler by nature,” was lambasting his professional brethren for “rank speculation,” reckless assumption of debt, “obscene” multimillion-dollar paychecks, and golden parachutes, and saying they had abdicated their duty as stewards in favor of self-interested salesmanship. …

Along the way, Mr. Bogle attracted his share of critics. He was called a communist, a Marxist, a Bolshevik, a Calvinist scold and zealot, a holier-than-thou traitor and subversive who was undermining the pillars of capitalism with un-American rants. Mr. Bogle characterized his pugnacious relationship with the financial industry as “a lover’s quarrel.” His mission, he said, was simple: to return capitalism, finance, and fund management to their roots in stewardship. …

A man who believed in the value of introspection and who was always questioning his own motives and behavior, Mr. Bogle sought to define what it means to lead a good life. It was not about wealth, power, fame and other conventional notions of success, he concluded.

“It’s about being a good husband, a good father, a good colleague, a good member of the community. Everything else pales by comparison. The accumulation of material goods is a waste — you can’t take them with you, anyway — and the waste is typified by our financial system. The essential message is, stop focusing on self and start thinking about service to others.”

When I was in Philadelphia this past weekend I happened at one point to be speaking with a Vanguard person, and asked about Jack Bogle. “He still comes into the office, still eats in the cafeteria with everyone else. He’s the most down-to-earth man.”

Jack Bogle forged Vanguard’s incredible reputation, and through index funds provided generations of average Americans the means to save and invest. My grandmother was one of those Vanguard disciples, and her frugality and farsightedness helped make possible a comfortable retirement for my grandparents and helped provide for the family over the years.

Antonio García Martinez reflected in light of Bogle’s death: “One of the key emptinesses at the core of modern secular liberalism is a convincing answer to the question: what is a good life? The ability to attain a felt (or acknowledged) dignity, irrespective of high or low material attainments, is an essential component of a sane society. The Greeks of course had their best minds wrestle with the question. We don’t dare even ask it anymore.”

RIP.

Higher GDP, lower quality of life

J.D. Vance writes in response to Tucker Carlson’s critique of an excessively economic-focused conservatism:

Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology. …

Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.”

We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”