Conservatives who intellectually have broken new ground come around once in a generation. And they usually share some common traits. They are not of the “Mr. Republican” type. They come from non-traditional or liberal backgrounds and are able to understand the other side, which allows them to argue against them more effectively. And they are so passionate about their ideas that they can’t stop talking about them.
William F. Buckley’s Catholicism, at a time when Catholic Republicans were scarce to say the least, played an instrumental role in his becoming the godfather of modern conservatism. Ronald Reagan voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was the head of a Hollywood union before becoming arguably the greatest president of the last century. Jack Kemp’s embrace of supply-side economics led Reagan to embrace it as well, which lowered the confiscatory marginal tax rates Reagan inherited. Newt Gingrich, before leading the Republican takeover of Congress, grew up in a region in which there were few Republicans. And Andrew Breitbart knew how to deconstruct and take apart the Democrat-media complex because he knew how it worked better than anyone, having grown up in the midst of it.
Messrs. Buckley, Reagan, Kemp, Gingrich, and Breitbart got people to think and look at the world differently. And that is what American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks does, too, by making the case that the battle between free enterprise and big government statism is a moral one -- and that advocates of free enterprise must win.
On Tuesday, Brooks will release his new book, The Road To Freedom, which implores conservatives to make the moral case for the free enterprise system. Conservatives have a decade to win this fight against statism. They cannot do it, says Brooks, unless they frame the argument as a moral one.
“We can’t just talk about economic alternatives, this is a battle between moral imperatives,” Brooks tells Breitbart News. “If we don’t win the argument, we will run down the road to serfdom, and we will ruin and squander the patrimony of our founders.”
Brooks, like Kemp with his enterprise zones and Breitbart on the Democrat-media complex, has an endless amount of energy when talking about how conservatives, even though they are right, lose economic arguments to liberals because they refuse to frame the debate in moral terms. Brooks explains just how important winning the argument this decade is if the America that is exceptional is to be preserved. He has a sense of urgency that’s backed by a cool intellectualism.
Brooks once wrote that James Q. Wilson, one of his role models, gave us “social science with a soul.” If conservatives are to defeat liberals on the economic battleground, they will have to do it by infusing their economic numbers and indicia with some more soul. This is Brooks’ mission -- and it could be his legacy.
Brooks grew up near Seattle in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Though his parents were not hippie guitar players, they were liberal Democrats.
“We didn’t know anyone who voted for Reagan,” Brooks said.
Brooks dropped out of college, became a professional musician, traveled the world, and then started college again at the age of 28, obtaining his degree by taking night classes after his day job.
He later became a professor and says he increasingly saw data that challenged his once-liberal assumptions about the world.
“When I found the data were at odds with the way I saw the world, I didn’t get rid of the data, I changed the way I saw the world,” Brooks said.
And that process was accelerated while he was writing his first trade book, Who Really Cares, published in 2006, when he was still a university professor at Syracuse. The book changed his career in many ways. Besides receiving hate mail for revealing truths – controversial truths, such as the fact that religious conservatives give more than others in society -- the book pushed Brooks down the intellectual road he is currently traveling.
Brooks said the most important thing that happened when he was writing Who Really Cares was it sparked an interest in him to pursue further what really made people happy and fulfilled.
“What I was finding increasingly is that the free enterprise system was truly, unambiguously the best system for making people happy,” Brooks said.
He says this realization changed his worldview so much that he left academia to find a better platform to get this message out to as many people as he could.
“I have to find a way to bring this to the lives of more people,” Brooks said he told himself. “ We have one life to use to serve others ... and this is the way I wanted to use mine .... and that is why I came to AEI.”
Brooks proudly refers to AEI as a “special place” that is an intellectual factory (AEI will also get the royalties from The Road To Freedom) that also provides him institutional support to talk about how preserving the free enterprise system is a moral imperative.
The book he wrote after Who Really Cares, The Battle, set up the cultural battle between free enterprise and statism. And The Road To Freedom essentially sets out how to win that battle and is a culmination of much of his work.
“If we want to win [the battle between free enterprise and statism], we have to stop talking only about money,” Brooks said. “We have to talk about it in moral terms.”
The free market, says Brooks, “is the only reason we have eradicated four-fifths of the world’s worst poverty. Free enterprise has saved hundreds of millions of lives, and it’s something bureaucrats never remember and statists ignore at their peril.”
Statism, of course, is the alternative to the free market system. And Brooks points out that one look over at Europe should be enough to scare Americans from going down that path.
“Statism dehumanizes us,” Brooks said, before adding that, “If we had old statism, billions of people would have died.”
Brooks’ wife is an immigrant from Spain who is too familiar with the perils of statism. What Brooks is trying to preserve is the America that awed his wife when she first arrived.
When his wife came to America, she received four job offers in the first month and told Brooks that America was “the greatest country in the world for people who want to work.”
“That was the most amazing thing I had ever heard, nobody had ever said anything like that to me before,” Brooks said. “My wife experienced America through the fresh eyes of an immigrant ... and helped me understand how truly a great country this is.”
When asked if he would ever enter the political arena to enable him to better make his argument and get tangible policy solutions enacted, Brooks did not close the door on the idea, even though he remains focused on helping conservatives make the moral case for free enterprise.
Brooks said while he was living in Syracuse, Republicans actually once approached him about running for an open Congressional seat. Brooks said he would never run for office for self-aggrandizement or for power, but added that, “if you live to be in the service of others, you’re open to all ways to serve.”
“You never know what the future will bring,” Brooks said. “I started out pretty poor, and if we were living in virtually any other society, I would still be in the neighborhood I grew up ... [as a] lower-middle class, poor kid ... so I never rule anything out.”
For now, though, Brooks is focused on doing his part to ensure America does not become a bigger version of Spain or Greece.
“We have about 10 years left,” Brooks warns. “Sooner or later, we have to pay the piper for our current bad policies.”
And that is why Brooks is so adamant that conservatives stop framing the economic debate in bean-counting terms and viscerally argue for it on ethical grounds.
Conservatives know how to fight, but Brooks is teaching them how to argue -- and win.