Speaking of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Ryan Cooper points to anxiety on the right about its considerable splash, and its rigorous argument for the tendency of wealth to concentrate over time. He quotes James Pethokoukis of National Review, who worries that a New Marxism is afoot:
John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek famously squared off in the 1930s, Left versus Right. But when Keynes published his revolutionary General Theory in 1936, Hayek went silent. It was a de facto retreat that helped give free rein to anti-market forces — even if that was not what Keynes intended — for decades until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz wrote A Monetary History of the United States in 1963 and energized the intellectual fight against statism. Who will make the intellectual case for economic freedom today?
Pethokoukis, conceding that Piketty’s case is “well argued, [but] far from airtight,” doesn’t try the heavy lifting himself, though he does seem to be overdoing the threat to capitalism’s hegemony. Still, his anxiety is worth savoring.
The right-wing classics of the 1960s and 1970s—I remember them well, I was a follower for a bit—were published when their ideas were fresh arguments against a Keynesian orthodoxy. Fifty years later, with neoliberalism ideologically triumphant but presiding over vast social and ecological wreckage, it’s hard to imagine anything with the verve or persuasiveness of Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom being written (or tweeted) today.
Pethokoukis should also reflect on the remarkable things that Corey Robin got NR’s founder to say in Lingua Franca back in 2001:
William F. Buckley Jr. says, “The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”
Sex is actually much better than the market, but let’s bracket that and consider as well what Corey got Irving Kristol to say:
“American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It’s so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left. If you read Marx, you’d learn what a political imagination could do.”
And, Buckley again:
At the end of our interview, I ask Buckley to imagine a younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today’s political world the same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his. What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace? “I’d be a socialist,” he replies. “A Mike Harrington socialist.” He pauses. “I’d even say a communist.”
The challenge, though, Buckley disclosed, was “conjoining all of that into an arresting afflatus.” But it’s not clear that the right has one of those at the ready either.