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Free to Choose

The 70-30 solution to the new culture war.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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The Battle

Free to Choose

How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future
by Arthur C. Brooks
Basic Books, 192 pp., $23.95

Arthur Brooks thinks we’re in for a new culture war. While we used to “fight over guns, abortion, religion, and gays,” our future battle is a struggle between “free enterprise and big government.” He casts his lot with free enterprise and argues that 70 percent of Americans do so as well. The problem is that a coalition of 30 percent prowls the halls of power in America and is working to undo 200 years of American exceptionalism, and they’re focused on co-opting the young to their side.

The Battle is an attempt to inoculate the young and reassure the rest of America that the free enterprise system is both economically and morally superior to its alternatives. An accomplished social scientist—formerly at Syracuse, now president of the American Enterprise Institute—Brooks is uniquely qualified to write this sort of book. The result is jam-packed with facts and figures—the endnotes alone comprise a fifth of the total—sufficient to show that entrepreneurship, economic liberty, and market economies make the most sense, not only in theory but in practice. This attention to both ideas and their consequences is the book’s greatest strength.

Brooks begins with his thesis that America is a 70-30 nation, and that the current battle between free enterprise and statism is a battle for its very soul. Grounding his argument in the Founding Fathers, he argues that free enterprise is about empowering people to pursue their own goals, to realize their dreams. Protection of private property, natural rights, and limited constitutional government are at the service of these ends. Political and economic freedom go hand in hand. And Americans know this—or, at least two-thirds of us do. Brooks marshals an impressive array of survey data to show that the vast majority of Americans “prefer capitalism over socialism.” Even if less charged terms are used in the questioning, when it comes to markets, taxes, business, and government, we prefer freedom.

The survey data seem meant to reassure Americans that they’re not alone, and to convince politicians that support for the free enterprise system is a winning platform. But why would these people need reassuring and convincing? Because of the 30 percent coalition, “led by people who are smart, powerful, and strategic,” who “make opinions, entertain us, inform us, and teach our kids in college.” While the rest of America has moved to the right since the 1970s, the intellectual aristocracy has not. And Brooks sees three broad strategies that they’re using to bring people under 30 to their side: They’re paying off their debts (especially college loans), giving them government jobs, and structuring the tax system so that they’ll never pay much of anything. 

Having painted the basic political-demographic picture, Brooks then shows how the 30 percent are mischaracterizing the financial crisis to remake American political and economic policy. As Brooks sees it, the “Obama Narrative about the financial crisis” contains the following five claims: Government wasn’t the primary cause of the crisis; government understands the causes and solutions; Main Street was just an unwitting victim; government expansion and deficit spending are the only solutions; middle-class Americans won’t pay for this, only the rich will pay.

On each count, as Brooks persuasively argues, the Obama Narrative is profoundly wrong. He presents the genuine causes and long-term solutions as deftly as he destroys the left’s story. Even so, Brooks insists that while it is true that “losing the culture struggle to the 30 percent coalition will make us poorer in money,” this is not the argument to make. At the heart of his defense of the free enterprise system is “the pursuit of happiness.” He turns the tables on liberals, arguing that their conception of state and economy is “fundamentally materialistic” while his is altogether moral. The 30 percent think that “money buys happiness,” so that “spreading the wealth around” is the only fair thing to do. This explains why redistribution of income, for equality’s sake, is their “fundamental goal.”

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