America News Analysis

Does Marco Rubio’s ‘common good capitalism’ go far enough?

Marco Rubio is changing for the better. The man who read Atlas Shrugged twice in his first state legislative term is now quoting Leo XIII in an attempt to salvage the American economic order.

The Florida Republican Senator, who ran for president in 2016, winning only a single state primary, along with DC and Puerto Rico, gave a speech last week at the Catholic University of America (CUA) entitled “Catholic Social Doctrine and the Dignity of Work”.

Rubio’s pitch in 2016 was as a sunny defender of American power and free enterprise, a successor to Ronald Reagan, of sorts. But it didn’t match the mood of the Republican electorate, as he admitted at CUA.

“I have been an unabashed believer both in American exceptionalism, and in the American Dream and its transformative power,” Rubio said. “But when I ran for president, I learned the hard way that there are many Americans who don’t share that type of optimism. I met the Americans who are anxious, even angry, at those they blame for ignoring them, for disrespecting them, for leaving them behind.”

Commenting on the senator’s shift, James Hohmann of the Washington Post said: “[Rubio] has concluded since losing the Republican nomination to Donald Trump in 2016 that corporate executives, by prioritising shareholders above workers and quarterly profits above the national interest, have caused an existential crisis of confidence in the underpinnings of the free-enterprise system.”

In the speech (I’m quoting from a written copy of his prepared remarks), Rubio added that “we have neglected the rights of workers to share in the benefits they create for their employer – and the obligation of businesses to act in the best interest of the workers and the country that have made their success possible.”

Referring to what can fairly be assumed to be Trump’s voter base, Rubio said: “These millions of Americans are the victims of an economic re-ordering which Pope Benedict in [his 2009 encyclical] Caritas in Veritate described as the dominance of ‘largely speculative’ financial flows detached from real production.”

The CUA speech is not the only notable point in the evolution of Marco Rubio.

He also released a paper called “American Investment in the 21st Century” that outlines a strategy for strong labour markets and industrial development. It criticises “shareholder primacy theory”, the basis for much economic policy over the last 40 years, saying it threatens “the sustainability of the private enterprise system. Productive business firms are valuable to the US to an extent far beyond their net present value to shareholders.”

In addition, Rubio has backed some proposals to strengthen American families. “It’s our imperative as policymakers to protect and expand our laws that promote strong families,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Caller News Foundation’s American Renewal project (of which I am editor). “For this reason, I’ve worked to expand the federal per-child tax credit and proposed that we create an option for parents to use their Social Security benefits for paid parental leave.”

If one could quibble with this shift, it’s only in the sense that it doesn’t go far enough. While Rubio’s new rhetoric is certainly encouraging, and a vast improvement over the Republican economic nostrums of yesteryear, there is still a gap between what he has been offering and the sort of family policy that we are starting to see in Central Europe, for instance. A child tax credit is, in some important ways, inferior to a direct payment to mothers.

Moreover, the paid family leave proposal put forward by Rubio, Senator Mitt Romney and Congressman Dan Crenshaw, is also not without flaws. Setting aside the fact that anything endorsed by Romney is almost inevitably going to be business-as-usual Republicanism, it has elements which will hardly help family formation – for instance, the proposal that parents of larger families who avail themselves of their plan will have to push back their retirement.

Mary Eberstadt’s book How The West Really Lost God is a counterintuitive explanation for the secularisation of society, a subject also recently discussed by Attorney General Bill Barr in a speech at Notre Dame. The secularisation of society follows the decline of the family, not the other way around, Eberstadt argues. It follows that, if one wants to reverse this – or perhaps, in the Protestant formulation, have another “Great Awakening” – the way to do it is not to sit around and hope for it to show up, but to enact policies that make it easier for men and women to form families today.

In a similar way, while it is wonderful to hear a politician invoking Leo XIII, Rubio’s rhetoric up to this point has centred on the idea that the insights of Catholic social teaching can salvage capitalism – a “common good capitalism”, he calls it. This is surely, to some extent, just how a Republican must speak. But there are some of us out there, perhaps more than one might think, who believe the Church’s insights in these matters have intrinsic value, apart from what they might be used to salvage.