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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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But Brooks has a richer understanding of happiness—or “human flourishing,” as he calls it—grounded in his prior research and social science: “People flourish when they earn their own success.” And it’s only a country that supports a free-enterprise system that allows people to earn their own success. Happiness suffers when we treat the poor as wards of the state and when we prohibitively tax and regulate entrepreneurs trying to make something for themselves. Sifting through the data, Brooks shows that “inequality is not what makes people unhappy,” and that for all but the poorest nations, “raising the average income won’t raise the life satisfaction of the citizenry.” Free enterprise is “not just the most efficient system; it’s the most fair and the most just.”

Earned success leads to true happiness, and the free enterprise system makes this possible for three key reasons: optimism, meaning, and control over our lives. Living in a free enterprise society means that we have the possibility of earning success and have hope for the future. Being free to develop our talents and take risks in our careers allows us to find meaning in our daily lives. And this same freedom gives us control over our lives and the sense of fulfillment that this brings.

In some campaign advice for wise politicians, Brooks closes with a five-pronged argument for any future defense of free enterprise. First, “the purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism.” Second, America is for equality of opportunity, not equality of income, and the free enterprise system best promotes and protects this type of equality. Third, rather than treating poverty as an isolated cancer (which inevitably leads to dependency and cyclical poverty), we should aim to stimulate true prosperity for all. Fourth, America is and should be promoted as a gift to the world. And fifth, what matters is principle, not power, and standing by principle will often require refusing to expand one’s power. 

While The Battle will be effective in its way, it is unlikely to convince those not already inclined to agree with its author. The problem is that no single liberal is likely to see himself in Brooks’s depiction of liberals. Liberals aren’t necessarily materialists, and they aren’t necessarily for redistribution for its own sake. Most think that material wealth is important precisely to secure the conditions for earned success. They emphasize redistribution because they think the poor are too poor to have the opportunity of earning success, which justifies taking from the rich to help the poor. 

That may be why so many people belong to both the 70 and 30 percent coalitions, rendering Brooks’s dichotomy less hard and fast than he may suppose. As Philip Converse showed a half-century ago, the public is not terribly consistent in its values, and polls aren’t terribly accurate in capturing them. There is likely more overlap between the 70 and the 30 than Brooks perceives. Reversing the usual trend for free-market adherents, he tries to do too much with the moral argument at the expense of the pragmatic one. And even for one (like me) who agrees with him that economic freedom facilitates the earned success so important to our happiness, some questions remain. Much economic truth is counterintuitive, and someone straddling the divide between the 70 and 30 will want to know precisely how government interference in the market hinders earned success, and what we should do about those who fail to provide for themselves.

Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute. 

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