While Arthur C. Brooks was Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University he wrote Who Really Cares and Gross National Happiness—books I’ve favorably reviewed in the past. Now he is president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and recently released The Battle: How the Fight Between FREE ENTERPRISE and BIG GOVERNMENT Will Shape America’s Future (New York: Basic Books, c. 2010), a brief but important treatise eminently worth pondering. In a profound way the book strongly reaffirms the message of the Liberty Bell—a phrase taken from Lev. 25:10—“proclaim liberty throughout the land.”
Though today’s “culture war” appears to be primarily economic and political, it is actually quite philosophical, involving “a struggle between two competing visions of America’s future. In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income redistribution, and government-controlled corporations. These competing visions are not reconcilable: We must choose” (p. 1). For himself, Brooks chooses free enterprise—“the system of values and laws that respects private property, encourages industry, celebrates liberty, limits government, and creates individual opportunity” (p. 3) that certainly characterized this nation in its formative years.
America’s founders, after all, waged a war of independence to escape onerous taxation. “Give me liberty or give me death,” said Patrick Henry. “‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,’ declared Benjamin Franklin” (p. 3). Furthermore, said Thomas Jefferson: “‘To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it’” (p. 4). And James Madison asserted that “the ‘first object of government is the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property’” (p. 104). Uniquely this “land of our fathers” has been a land of liberty—affording the freedom to live free from either tyrannical control or paternalistic care.
Attuned to this nation’s tradition, free enterprise retains widespread popular support. Brooks insists that at least 70 percent of the American people prefer free enterprise capitalism to various versions of centralized state socialism. The other 30 percent, however, form a powerful coalition “led by people who are smart, powerful, and strategic” (p. 13). They are the university professors and Hollywood celebrities, the journalists and judges—the “intellectual upper class: those in the top 5 percent of the population in income, who hold graduate degrees, and work in intellectual industries such as law, education, journalism, and entertainment” (p. 13). The 30 percent coalition emerged in FDR’s New Deal, and President “Obama wants to finish the job by turning it into a permanent ruling majority” (p. 66).
“America is a 70-30 nation in favor of free enterprise. Yet the 30 percent coalition is firmly in charge” (p. 27). The reason is simple: the financial crisis in 2008 enabled the elite minority (personified by Barack Obama) to take control of the country and orchestrate sweeping “change.” No expenditures were considered inordinate, and within two months “the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve had spent, lent, or pledged some $12.8 trillion of America’s future prosperity. It was an enormous amount, rivaling the value of everything produced in the U.S. economy in 2008” (p. 32). All this was demanded, Obama intoned, because the George Bush administration and Wall Street had failed to rightly regulate markets and curb capitalism’s excesses.
“Unfortunately for America,” Brooks says, “the Obama Narrative is wrong on every point” (p. 35). Government (not business) and politicians (not bankers) actually caused the 2008 financial crisis. “The government’s failure is most blatant in the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Through these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), politicians pulled off some of their most dramatic, and costly efforts at social engineering. At the same time, they enriched their political campaigns. And in the process, they perverted the most basic rules of the free enterprise system” (p. 36). The collapse of the housing market sparked the financial collapse, and the housing market collapsed because ideologues like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd “sparked the fire that burned down our financial system” (p. 41).
Trusting politicians such as Barney Frank to resolve the recession they helped cause is, of course, ludicrous. But the Obama Narrative insists we do precisely that—as was evident in the bill recently passed to regulate Wall Street. Still more: the president insists we can “spend our way out of this recession” and continually calls for bail-outs and subsidies of various sorts. Unfortunately, “attempts to shore up the economy with massive public spending have done little to improve matters and have served primarily to chain future generations with debt” (p. 55). Unemployment persists and the GDP stalls amidst profligate government spending!
Many big government devotees pursue their agenda fueled by faith that they are providing “happiness” for the masses. They imagine that we all crave equality, so giving everyone the same amount of money or entitlements or assets will make everyone equally happy. As philosophical materialists they fail to understand “that the secret to human flourishing is not money but earned success in life” (p. 71). Unearned income—welfare in various guises—is especially pernicious, almost guaranteeing unhappiness! Only “earned success”—often attained in non-monetary realms—satisfies the soul. This necessarily follows: “If money without earned success does not bring happiness, then redistributing money won’t make for a happier America” (p. 81). A truly good government, then, does not dole out goods but grants the freedom to pursue the happiness that only comes through earned success.
Unfortunately, Brooks acknowledges, advocates of free enterprise such as himself too often rely on strictly economic rather than ethical categories. But, he argues, though “we often use the language of commerce and business, what we really believe in is human flourishing and happiness. We must articulate a set of moral principles that set forth our fundamental values and principles” (p. 97). Importantly, this “is the first and most important of these moral principles: The purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism” (p. 97). Added to this are four subsidiary principles: 2) seek equal opportunity, “not equality of income;” 3) promote prosperity rather than alleviate poverty; 4) celebrate America as “a gift to the world;” and 5) commit to ethical principles, “not political power” (p. 103). If such principles are clearly explained and vigorously defended, Brooks believes, the battle can be won.
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.