Religion & Liberty Online

Is It Even Possible To Be Both Pro-Business and Pro-Market?

downloadIn his latest column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg notes the difference between being pro-business and pro-market and says the GOP can’t have it both ways anymore:

Just to clarify, the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a “friend of business” is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs, or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone.

Politically, the reason the lines get blurry in good times and bad is that in a boom, the economic pie is growing fast enough that the friend and his competitor alike can prosper. In bad times, when politicians are desperate to get the economy going, no one in Washington wants to seem like an enemy of the “job creators.”

Goldberg is absolutely right about the difference being categorical. As economist Arnold Kling has helpfully outlined, support/opposition to markets and business gives us four categories:

Consider the following matrix:

Pro-Business Anti-Business

The point is that there really are four separate categories, not just the two pro’s and the two anti’s. On health care reform and bank regulation, I would argue that the Obama Administration is trying to be pro-business and anti-market. The wonks do not trust markets at all, and they think they can do a better job of regulating them. But they are more than willing to keep big business interests happy.

An important point is that well-established businesses do not trust markets either. The last thing that a well-established business wants to see is a free market. What it wants is a regulated market that keeps competitors at bay. The people who benefit from free markets are small entrepreneurs and, above all, consumers.

Many people are initially surprised to find that being pro-market does not mean being pro-business and being anti-market does not require being anti-business. The general assumption is that those positions conflict, though upon reflection it becomes obvious there’s no necessary reason that they would. Similarly , it’s also possible to be anti-business and anti-market. But is it possible to consistently pro-market and pro-business?

Goldberg seems to be saying that it’s not possible to be both. I would like to disagree but I’m having a difficult time convincing myself that it is actually possible to be both at the same time. You could hold a hybrid position, such as “I’m pro-business until it conflicts with being pro-market.” But that compromise seems to be similar to the pro-market/anti-business position.

What do you think? Is it possible — in real world situations — to consistently and equally be both pro-business and pro-market at the same time?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).