Ben Shapiro is a flaming liberal.
That might seem like a striking and ridiculous claim to many on the right wing of American politics, for whom the meaning of “liberalism” is restricted to the Democratic party. But let me explain what I mean.
A few weeks ago, Ben Shapiro interviewed the Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang — the only Democratic candidate who has agreed to come on to Shapiro’s show. (As an aside, I have to admit that I like Andrew Yang a lot, even though I am by no means a Democrat.) Yang’s campaign revolves around a core proposal, which has been much in the news lately (in fact Medium has a whole category devoted to it), namely universal basic income. Yang calls his version of UBI by the name of “the Freedom Dividend,” which will give $1000 per month to every U.S. citizen. Of course, anyone could have predicted that Ben Shapiro’s reaction to this would be something like “socialism!!”; and that is indeed more or less what it was (although Shapiro’s conversation with Yang was admittedly more civil and level-headed than his weekday rants about socialism).
Yang’s idea behind the “Freedom Dividend” is that, given the coming onslaught of automated jobs and AI, which threatens to cause (and has already caused) massive unemployment in many industries, it is necessary that every man should be guaranteed to at least a minimum security and basic quality of life, without having to start out from an income of zero. Consequently, Yang wishes to make every man a shareholder, just as the old distributists wanted to make every man an owner of capital (“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” — G.K. Chesterton). Yang’s vision for UBI is in fact, in his own mind, very capitalistic, since he envisions that provided some basic security of income, more citizens will have the chance to invest in real entrepreneurship if they wish to, and to pursue jobs which they find truly meaningful and fulfilling.
Yang’s defense of “the Freedom Dividend” rests on a conception of “human capitalism,” which amounts to the claim that markets exist to serve people and their common goals. People do not exist to serve markets, but the other way around. On his campaign website, one can read the following words, which in large part — especially number 3 — seem to resemble the classical and ancient doctrine of the primacy of the common good:
1. Humans are more important than money
2. The unit of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar
3. Markets exist to serve our common goals and values
We need to make the markets serve us rather than the other way around. Profit-seeking companies are organized to maximize their bottom line at every turn which will naturally lead to extreme policies and outcomes. We need government leaders who are truly laser-focused on the public interest above all else and will lead companies to act accordingly.
These tenets, especially the third, closely resemble the teaching of Plato and Aristotle on the primacy of the common good over the individual good, because the common good itself is a more perfect good for individuals than the goods which they might claim for themselves exclusively. Aristotle writes: “Though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1094b) Charles DeKoninck, a Catholic philosopher in the 20th century, wrote a magnificent and dense treatise on this principle, against the “personalists” or “individualists” — liberals — who exalted the private good over the common good. In this treatise, he writes: “ The rational creature draws its dignity from the fact that, by its proper operation, by its intelligence and its love it can attain to the ultimate end of the universe.” In other words, the worth and value of the human being does not stand alone, but is dependent upon the human being properly directed in his actions towards the common good. This means that where someone is not cooperating with others towards shared goals, there is something wrong; and where the market is not contributing to the pursuit of such shared goals and common goods, there is something wrong.
What I find remarkable is that it is precisely this principle, which animates the core of Andrew Yang’s campaign, that Ben Shapiro finds objectionable. At around minute 28:10 of the interview, Shapiro asks Yang about his “view of capitalism,” and he cites the above principles. Shapiro agrees with the first principle, that humans are more important than money; but starting with the second principle he begins to disagree, on the basis that economic value is determined not by persons, but by their skill sets, which are certainly not infinitely valuable. The third principle is where Shapiro really starts to disagree most explicitly:
The idea that markets exist to serve people, I think, is something with which I disagree…My view of the market is just a recognition that my labor belongs to me. A free market is just ‘my labor belongs to me,’ in the same way that free speech is ‘my viewpoint belongs to me.’ You can’t say that the market exists to serve our common goals anymore than you can say that free speech exists to serve our common goals. Free speech is just a recognition that I as an individual human being have worth. And so free markets are the same thing, it’s a recognition that I as an individual human being, my labor, has worth. So the idea that the market is just something that is an institution that we have come up with together and that we play with — I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of what markets actually represent. There’s an underlying value to human labor that is not just a common system we all decided to come up with one day, it’s just a recognition that I can alienate my labor and you can buy my labor. Is that wrong?
My claim is that this point of view is nothing other than good old fashioned liberalism — and it’s the same liberalism, in principle, that Shapiro often decries on the left, against which he is known as the defender of Judaeo-Christian morality and social conservative values.
Liberalism at its most foundational core is nothing other than the brute factual assertion that individuals have worth, in abstraction from all other conditions and causes of worth. The individual human is an atom of absolute value that stands alone, autonomous and “free,” a fact that needs no explanation, a fact that does not depend upon being rightly ordered to an ultimate purpose or good outside of himself. One of the hallmarks of liberalism is its radical individualism, by which it posits the primacy of the individual and his private good, his value, over and above common goods and the goods of community. Notice the quietly mocking tone with which Shapiro dismisses the idea that the market is “just something that is an institution that we have come up together and that we play with…. a common system we all decided to come up with one day…”
This liberalism also animates the left wing, by the way. Shapiro himself cannot be unaware that the left is dominated by a cultural individualism, a radical assertion of the primacy of the individual’s choice and freedom to define himself, to free himself from moral and social bonds, to free himself from all obligations, from objective truth and goodness, etc. This is the source of the left’s radical commitment to abortion, transgenderism, homosexual promiscuity, and so forth. It is liberalism. The problem is that Shapiro, while decrying the liberalism that produces these forms of cultural progressivism, adopts the same liberalism in the sphere of economics: every individual has infinite worth, an undefined power of self-determination (in respect to which the government is no more than an interference), an autonomy from social obligations, bonds of justice, or common goods that may ever be enforced by political means. This atomic worth of the individual effectively frees the individual from either having or (crucially for capitalism) being the recipient of, any social obligations. Shapiro is therefore not any less liberal than the leftists whom he so often criticizes; he is just as liberal, but with a different emphasis.
Is he consistent with himself? Can Shapiro be a liberal and a culturally conservative Jew at the same time? My own position is that these things are far from compatible with each other. At the same time, it is worth noting that there have in fact been many attempts to justify conservative Judaeo-Christian morality on the basis of principles which were, in essence, liberalism. The philosophical project of the Enlightenment has been defined, by philosophers such as Alasdair Macintyre, as precisely that: an attempt to justify traditional morality without reference to the social and communal basis on which traditional morality was once founded. In other words, the Enlightenment project rejected common goods as an explanatory basis for traditional morality, and sought to explain it on the basis of a liberal and individualistic sense of “personal value” or “individual worth,” conceived in different ways. Every attempt to do this failed miserably, and led to a cascading collapse of traditional morality altogether, resulting in the modern leftist form of progressivism. The modern American right (as represented by the likes of Ben Shapiro), which has not fallen as far as the left into the abyss of cultural amoralism, has fallen so far into the abyss of economic amoralism. Moreover, the proponents of the right are unable to recognize that the liberalism on the basis of which they uphold any semblance of traditional morality is also the root cause of that same morality’s downfall.
To return to where we started, I am by no means trying to indirectly defend or promote the presidential campaign of Mr. Yang, about whom I still have much to learn. Although his platform contains much in the way of economics that is admirable and even worth voting for — and although he is by far the most likable presidential candidate in the last couple of decades — he has not yet escaped entirely from the snare of progressive liberalism; for his platform includes support for the right to abortion and contraception, as well as LGBTQ rights, and other such progressivist agendas. But time may tell whether these progressive agendas are really central to his campaign, or whether they are on the periphery. In any case, as with much of the far-left, Mr. Yang’s economic policies are at least partially motivated by sound philosophical principles and a love for the common good of all over the profit of a few — a truly conservative value if ever there was one. Ben Shapiro, on the other hand, is a flaming liberal when it comes to the economy.