Last week, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced an impeachment inquiry into President Biden’s (and his family’s) foreign business dealings. While the inquiry’s ultimate direction will ensue from whatever might be unearthed in the investigation, its hypothesis seems clear: the current president may have monetized his influence over U.S. governmental policy for self-enrichment.
Whether Joe Biden engaged in such acts is not definitively known. But how would the American public react if it is conclusively shown that he did?
Early polling suggests meaningful, but not overwhelming, disapproval. A CNN poll taken earlier this month is instructive: a majority (61 percent) believe that Biden had at least some involvement in his son Hunter’s business dealings; 42 percent think that he acted illegally, with 18 percent saying that his actions were unethical but not illegal (1 percent maintain that he was involved but did nothing wrong).
It’s hard to draw specific inferences from polling data, particularly before the facts have been fully established. But it’s that 19 percent portion of respondents who see what Biden did as not illegal (including the 1 percent who think he did nothing wrong at all) who are particularly notable. This figure represents nearly one-third of the portion of respondents (61 percent) who believe that Biden had some involvement in Hunter’s doings. By saying that the president’s actions are “unethical but not illegal” they are, in effect, giving him a pass, since ethics/morals can be situational in practice, but laws are firm—and saying it’s not illegal is effectively saying that it’s okay. In the views of this cohort, we might perhaps see a reflection of contemporary mores.
We live in an era in which commerce encroaches on an ever-larger percentage of our daily lives, mostly with our consent. This manifests in ways both transactional and cultural. Smartphone applications—Uber, for example—have reduced or eliminated the friction costs associated with connecting willing buyers and sellers of goods and services. As the purposes to which these applications are put broaden, they increasingly induce nontraditional supply (and demand) for their products. Services such as Turo (which allows for renting out one’s car) or Airbnb (for renting private residences, or a portion thereof) extend traditional business models—car and property rental—in ways that enable noncommercial entities to monetize underutilized assets. Even a short while ago, it would have been hard to imagine that these models might represent viable economic opportunities.
Similarly—and jarringly, to those of a certain age—the ethos of monetization now pervades the larger culture. Social media platforms like Instagram have brought us the so-called influencers, who act as tastemakers for their large social media followings and are thus highly sought after for brand affiliations. Only in the past several years have people begun to use the term “personal brand” unironically. While a personal brand can be thought of as vaguely synonymous with “identity,” its borrowing from corporate marketing-speak and intent to convey something broader—a specific value proposition—commoditizes individuality. Indeed, Hunter Biden’s business partner Devon Archer revealingly spoke about the “Biden brand” in his recent congressional testimony.
To monetize nontraditional assets, and to think of oneself as an economic actor, are not intrinsically bad. On the contrary, one of the great advantages of free enterprise as a form of economic organization is that, unlike collectivist ideologies, it can comfortably coexist with various value systems.
The risk lies in an unabated, tech-enabled trend toward “transactionalizing” an ever-growing portion of our lives. Historically, most human experience has been given over to civic, spiritual, and other private occupations. These other priorities and affiliations form a sort of anti-commercial “moat” around many areas of life and carry with them values that supersede economic logic.
Much has been written about how civic and religious engagement have receded in the U.S. over the last 50 years. As these other priorities and commitments fade from view, they leave the field of modern life to two huge, symbiotic phenomena, with seemingly limitless resources and appetites—commerce and government.
Without the morality, substance, and sense of belonging offered by these other spheres, the scope for further commercial trivialization of modern life can only grow. One hardly needs a dystopian imagination to contemplate how and where such monetization might further extend. Prostitution and organ harvesting are already with us; indeed, the moral neutrality over “sex work” points the way toward greater societal acceptance of what has long been considered morally repugnant conduct. One recoils at the thought of calculating all the underutilized assets in one’s private life that might be bought and sold (with each transaction taxed along the way).
A society without protective barriers around certain activities risks replacing traditional value systems with transactions. Capitalism’s amorality is a feature, not a bug; it functions best when constrained by the robust institutions of civil society. To be described as “commercial” in a business context is a compliment—it suggests that one’s activities align with the larger objectives of one’s employer, which are to generate profits and maximize shareholder value. To take a commercial approach to, say, interpersonal or familial relationships, however, can only worsen the feelings of emptiness that citizens of developed economies seem increasingly to be experiencing.
It’s not hard to imagine a world unbound from metaphysical considerations. Extending commercial and economic sensibilities to all facets of life recalls the scene from the 2006 comedy Idiocracy, in which emergency room patients at a hospital spin a “Price is Right”-style wheel in the hopes of winning critical medical attention.
We often hear that voters get the politicians they deserve. And I’m reluctant to draw too damning a conclusion from the CNN poll data cited above. But a society willing to accept monetizing influence over public policy for personal gain—effectively saying that such behavior, while not great, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) illegal—is more than a little worrying, especially when the individual in question has sworn an oath of fealty to the U.S. Constitution. It flashes a warning sign of our unrelenting march toward commerce super omnia.
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