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.”
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.