Memo to Mitt Romney: Capitalism Isn’t the Only Answer

His money-hungry tactics may have served him well at Bain Capital, but they won't help America.

Criticizing Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital is now apparently akin to celebrating the Holocaust.

That’s a horrible thing to say, isn’t it? But don’t blame me. I’m taking my cues from Rich Lowry, editor of that bible of American conservatism, National Review. Lowry doesnt like a new film that highlights Romney’s old habit of closing businesses and firing workers—and so leads off a recent column by calling the film’s creator “the Leni Riefenstahl of the blistering attack documentary.”

Because shining a light on venture capitalism is kind of the same thing as making propaganda films for Hitler. Right?

You can’t really blame Lowry for his ugly analogies, I guess. Romney has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism for his days at Bain Capital–most notably from Newt Gingrich!—and you can understand why the high priests of the GOP are flabbergasted: If the Republican Party believes in one thing these days, it’s that there is almost nothing that can’t be justified by the pursuit of profit.

If retirements are wiped out, workers’ lives destroyed, communities devastated—and the government stuck with the tab—well, that’s “creative destruction.” That’s part of capitalism. And capitalism is always and everywhere good at all times, completely without flaw.

Point out a flaw, and you’re basically committing heresy. Suggest that society might weigh private profit against other public goods, and you’ve uttered blasphemy.

Capitalism’s Republican acolytes like to think they’re merely hard-headed realists—and that critics of the market are pointy-headed intellectual types who won’t get their hands dirty or pursue productive professions, like real Americans. “I’ve always believed that if capitalism rewarded poetry majors more,” Jonah Goldberg wrote recently, “free markets would be in a lot better shape today.”

Goldberg’s idea is that capitalism can only be criticized from an ivory tower—that there’s no “real world” basis for criticism. But the Kansas City steel mill workers who saw their jobs (and pensions) disappear while Romney’s Bain Capital turned a tidy profit probably aren’t studying Rimbaud or Rilke. They’re real people who (as the political cliche goes) worked hard and played by the rules, only to find themselves screwed over by the rich guys.

Understand: Capitalism is often a really good thing. Free markets have raised living standards not just in the United States, but in China, India, South Korea, and a whole bunch of other places. Free markets have often even helped produce—or at least coincided with—free societies. That’s a pretty good record to defend.

In the hands of the GOP’s Chamber of Commerce types, though, that pretty good record becomes sanctified and takes on a utopian cast, bloodless and disconnected from its real-world effects: “Creative destruction” is discussed with no real acknowledgement that something more tangible than a file containing someone’s outdated business plan is what has been destroyed. Markets are good, and if markets produce bad results, it’s probably because of the government. Or unions. Or minorities. Or some combination of the three. Capitalism cannot fail, ever; it can only be failed.

This is plainly nuts. Sometimes even good systems produce bad outcomes. And sometimes companies like Bain Capital can leave communities poorer and weaker in their wake. Acknowledging this doesn’t have to mean the end of capitalism. But it might lead to regulation, or taxes, or a strengthened safety net. So no error must ever, ever be admitted.

“There are a number of issues for Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents to attack him for,” the Club for Growth’s Chris Chocola said last week, “but attacking him for making investments in companies to create a profit for his investors is just wrong.” Why? If Romney made his investments in such a way that harm was created along with profit, why should he be immune from criticism?

Chocola’s comment only makes sense if profit is the only public good, if the pursuit of the bottom line is revered—to the exclusion of all other benefits—with religious devotion. It does not make sense in the real world.

There are a few conservatives, like Ross Douthat, who know how to praise capitalism and acknowledge its costs. Too many Republicans, though, are much more willing to hurl Nazi slurs at the capitalism’s critics. Romney wants you to believe that his critics are engaged in “the bitter politics of envy” but he’s incorrect. Profits are a good thing. They are not the only thing.