Ben Shapiro is living proof that the American dream is still open to anyone who works hard, plays by the rules, and parrots their wealthy parents’ conservative agitprop in a rapid-fire voice brimming with unearned confidence.
In just 35 years on this planet, Shapiro has made himself into quite possibly the most influential conservative thinker in the United States. His podcast boasts 3.6 million unique monthly listeners, more than any other opinion podcast, left or right. His book is a No. 1 New York Times best seller. More than 800,000 people subscribe to his YouTube channel, while 2.3 million follow his Twitter feed. Most impressively, after building much of his audience on the strength of hot takes like “Barack Obama is waging an anti-white race war,” and “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage,” Shapiro has successfully refashioned himself as an exemplar of respectable conservatism, the kind of reactionary whose honor center-left journalists feel compelled to defend, and whom the Times can describe, unironically, as “the cool kid’s philosopher.”
For some, Shapiro’s extraordinary success is a testament to the fraudulence of America’s so-called meritocracy. For the “philosopher” himself, it is ostensibly the opposite. Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris said that no one in the United States should have to work two jobs to make ends meet. Shapiro bristled at her delusional utopianism.
After some questioned Shapiro’s apparent conviction that America’s working poor all chose to forgo more gainful employment opportunities that were readily available to them, our nation’s most celebrated debater clarified his point in a series of tweets, which can be compiled into the following three paragraphs:
The point I am making, of course, is that you cannot dictate that a job pay you what you wish it paid you. That is obvious, and why it is foolishness for politicians to claim that the economy can be structured to force your desired level of pay from a job you chose to take.
The answer to the problem of taking a job that you feel underpays you is to (a) not take the job, as I suggest here, or (b) not live beyond your means. It is not to restructure the economy in line with your utopian view of what you deserve from others.
This is perfectly clear in context; the comment immediately follows a line from Kamala Harris claiming that no one should have to work two jobs. And by the way, I have worked multiple jobs for most of my career.
This argument is difficult to rebut, in the sense that it is so abstractly worded, it’s hard to say with confidence what Shapiro’s argument even is. Further, the most intuitive interpretations of his case are so prima facie stupid, they sound like straw men. Shapiro is criticizing a politician for championing wage-boosting policies on the grounds that “you cannot dictate that a job pay you what you wish it paid you.” Does that mean he is unaware that, through political action, American workers succeeded in getting the federal government to dictate that every job in the U.S. pays at least $7.25 an hour? If you accused Shapiro of such ignorance, he’d surely decry your bad faith. And yet, if one presumes that he is aware that the labor movement and minimum wage both exist, what remains of his point? If he doesn’t deny that public policies can meaningfully influence prevailing wage rates — but merely insists that the government cannot guarantee that all U.S. workers will be paid the exact wage necessary to support the specific living standard they subjectively define as sufficient — then he is the one attacking a straw man.
Shapiro can’t honestly believe that when Harris said (in his paraphrase) “no one should have to work two jobs,” she meant that the state should ensure that each individual worker earns a wage commensurate with their own idiosyncratic material expectations. But if he isn’t projecting that absurd view onto Harris, then his description of her proposal as “utopian” makes no sense. If one assumes that by saying “no one should have to work two jobs,” Harris meant “everyone should be able to earn a living wage (conventionally defined) from a single, stable source of employment,” then her vision is hardly revolutionary. In fact, her aim could plausibly be achieved without “dictating” market wages at all: Dramatically expanding safety-net benefits and wage subsidies (as Harris’s LIFT Act would do) may well be sufficient to redress the plight of workers who earn less than a living wage, a group that accounts for nearly a third of full-time workers, under the most conservative definition. In other words, if the world’s wealthiest nation provided its low-income workers with the forms of social protection that are common in Western Europe — such as high-quality social housing, child allowances, public day care, and universal health care — it could plausibly lower such workers’ cost of living to a point that obviates the need for fiddling with the market-wage rates Shapiro finds so sacred.
All this said, the shoddiness of Shapiro’s sophistry is less telling than the bankruptcy of his ideological premises. The clear implication of his argument is that there is something morally suspect about using politics to “restructure the economy” in accordance with a theory of justice. He does not explain why this is so. But his ostensible position is that the U.S. economy is currently structured by impartial “free markets,” which deserve deference on account of their illustrious record of advancing human welfare.
Her decision to accept the Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement notwithstanding, Ocasio-Cortez has never advocated for the abolition of markets, or a centrally planned command economy (and neither do many of the DSA’s most prominent intellectuals). Rather, AOC’s definition of democratic socialism is largely indistinguishable from Nordic social democracy — an economic model that keeps poverty far lower in Scandinavia than it is in the U.S. Thus, Shapiro cannot discredit AOC’s worldview (let alone Harris’s) by asserting that market economies are preferable to the Soviet model. Rather, to do so he would need to demonstrate that the specific way American policy-makers have chosen to structure our market economy is preferable to left-wing alternatives.
But Shapiro shrinks from this task. As dim-witted defenders of invidious social orders have done from time immemorial, he simply asserts that America’s inequities were dictated by natural forces that transcend human authority. The king’s word is law because God said it is; Jeffrey Epstein’s contributions to our society were objectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, while those of the average elder-care worker are objectively worth a mere pittance, because the free market provides all workers the fruits of their marginal utility.
There was a time when this “seventh-grade essay contest” account of American capitalism had hegemony on the U.S. right (which is one reason Shapiro was able to become a celebrated conservative pundit by the time he finished middle school). But after our deregulated financial sector brought the global economy to the brink of destruction — only to see market capitalism saved by the combined efforts of U.S. taxpayers, the Federal Reserve, and Chinese Communist Party — many right-wing influencers felt compelled to develop more nuanced apologies for the status quo. The Koch brothers spent the Obama era decrying the “crony capitalism” that had laid waste to America’s free-enterprise system. Tucker Carlson makes halfway cogent critiques of neoliberal globalization when he isn’t doing his darndest to incite pogroms. Marco Rubio is putting out policy papers that lament the financialization of the U.S. economy and call for a return to industrial policy. But Shapiro is still content to cite chapter and verse from a coloring-book version of Ayn Rand’s collected works.
Does Shapiro believe that the wages his parents earned in Hollywood were in no way influenced by intellectual-property laws that structure the global entertainment market, and which their industry won through political organizing? Does he think that the profits of America’s corn growers are in no way influenced by the $20 billion our government annually pays out in farm subsidies, or that Big Pharma’s profits are determined by free markets, rather than “big government” enforcement of patent monopolies? Does he think that the $716 billion the federal government will spend on defense this year plays no role in structuring the distribution of income in our economy? Does he believe that changes in the laws governing financial markets and labor relations played no role in opening a chasm between the salaries of American CEOs and those of their typical employees, or between America’s level of inequality and that of Western Europe?
If he doesn’t believe any of these things — which is to say, if he understands the American economy is constantly being restructured by political forces — then why does he take such exception at the idea of restructuring it to better serve the working poor? Either Shapiro has a juvenile understanding of how American capitalism works, or a peculiar conception of economic justice that he does not wish to publicly defend.
In truth, all market economies are fundamentally a kind of “big government” program. Absent a sovereign entity capable of enforcing contracts by commanding a monopoly on violence, mass commerce between strangers is nigh impossible. Less abstractly, the introduction of private property across the North American continent required massive state violence and investment. Meanwhile, some human agency must decide roughly how much sovereign currency and credit should be in circulation at any given time, and this decision will inevitably have large, economy-wide implications on how markets function and whose interests they best serve.
Perhaps Shapiro understands all this; perhaps he has simply recognized that, given the existing structure of America’s “ideas” economy, you can’t become the nation’s foremost conservative intellectual by saying things that are true. Either way, Shapiro’s prominence is as damning an indictment of America’s economic order as any Bernie Sanders has ever shouted.