Samuel Hammond, Helen Andrews, Daniel McCarthy, and Andy Smarick offer perspectives on what a humane economy might look like.
The last years of the twentieth century were a time of triumph for the American economy. Fears about jobs lost to foreign competition were assuaged by the promise of new ones to be created through the telecommunications revolution. The internet seemed to offer limitless possibilities—not only for profit but for personal freedom as well. Anyone could start a website or, by the early 2000s, a blog. “The New Economy,” as it was called, would be freer as well as wealthier than the industrial economy that had preceded it. Together wealth and freedom would make up for anything that was lost in the transition. Americans would be at liberty and empowered to build new communities in place of those that could not survive the change.
The ethos of that era was a blend of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and the movie Wall Street. Gordon Gekko had said greed was good. The high-tech hippies of the millennium believed greed was good—not in Gekko’s cynical, self-interested sense but rather in that what was morally good would be well served by innovation brought about through the pursuit of profit. There was no conflict between community and progress, between Bill Gates’s wealth and the rising prosperity of those who used his products, or between China’s enrichment and America’s.
Three decades into the new economy, the costs appear higher and the benefits disappoint. The internet is not a wide-open frontier; it is dominated by large firms that enforce a certain conformity, while social media mobs demand not freedom but greater suppression. The communitarian dreams of the early internet era—Newt Gingrich’s “internet town hall,” for example—have given way to a reality in which men and women (and children) are increasingly alone with their devices even when they are in rooms full of other people. China has not liberalized, while huge tracts of what was once America’s industrial heartland have been abandoned to opioids and despair.
Wealth and freedom by themselves did not create a humane social order. If we are to build one now, we will have to act more consciously. That does not mean economic planning, but it does mean thinking anew about the relationship between society, market, and policy, while never forgetting that a humane economy is one in which civil society and well-formed individuals prosper.