AEI's Arthur Brooks: Make the Moral Case for Freedom

I had the opportunity today to hear American Enterprise Institute (AEI) president Arthur C. Brooks preview his upcoming book, The Road to Freedom, at an AEI policy meeting in Beverly Hills, CA.

Brooks is concerned with what he calls the new culture war–not over the traditional social issues of “guns, gays, and abortion,” but over the moral virtue of the free market and free enterprise systems over the redistributionist, statist ethic.

Brooks cited Americans’ unprecedented dissatisfaction with government in the wake of the failed stimulus, the numerous bailouts, the government’s role in creating the housing crisis, and other statist failures. Proponents of free enterprise, he says, should be winning the argument. Instead, he points out, most Americans hold beliefs incompatible with a culture of free enterprise–supporting higher taxes, more regulations, and the like.

The reason? “Proponents of free enterprise have nothing but materialistic rejoinders.” Put simply, those who favor individual economic freedom tend to debate using numbers, and technical arguments–while those who favor more government, such as President Barack Obama, are making moral arguments about the unfairness and injustice of the inequality that freedom may enable. They are winning–even though they are wrong.

Our brains, Brooks says, are wired to favor moral over materialistic arguments when we are presented with both at the same time. People are “more moral than rational.” (That is a truth that Republicans have yet to acknowledge. A classic example: at the height of the ObamaCare debate, Paul Ryan trounced Debbie Wasserman-Schultz over the costs–only to lose the argument when she told a personal story about breast cancer.)

Conservatives had won the debate over welfare reform in the 1980s and 1990s, Brooks notes, by pointing out that government handouts were hurting the people they had been intended to help. That wasn’t just an empirical, economic argument; it was a profoundly moral argument. The argument for free enterprise will not be resolved in 2012, but will take at least a decade, Brooks predicts: “We’ve got to be in it for the long haul,” he says.

The moral argument begins with a question about happiness, Brooks says–a topic he has written about before, and in which America’s Founders were deeply interested. When they substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property” in the Declaration of Independence, they knew something economists are only just beginning to understand: money doesn’t buy happiness, but the belief that you’ve earned your success does.

“The government can redistribute money until the cows come home, but they can’t redistribute earned success.” And that, Brooks says, explains the paradox of people being dissatisfied with government but wanting more of it: we confuse money with earned success, then fail to achieve it. In the meantime, many fall victim to what he calls “learned helplessness”: we give up on our ability to achieve happiness on our own.

The answer, Brooks says, is a system: free enterprise, which allows us to keep what we earn, to pursue our individual visions of happiness. To the statists who charge that free enterprise is unfair, we ought to ask the question: what do you define as fair? Is fairness crude material equality? Or is fairness equal reward for equal merit? The latter, Brooks says, is compatible with free enterprise; the former is not, and is doomed to fail.

President Obama, Brooks says, subscribes to the first version–and tells those who have succeeded that they have not earned their success. The way to win the argument, Brooks says, is to assert a different definition of fairness. That is a moral case, Brooks says, and must precede the material case. We should demand that the government protect the fairness that previous generations enjoyed–fairness as earned success.

Listening to Brooks, it struck me that the moral case for freedom is what conservatives have been seeking–and failing to find–among many GOP presidential candidates. Those who have surged lately are those who have made liberty their cause (Ron Paul), or who have made the moral case against Obama’s presidency (Rick Santorum). Those who are fading are those who have ceded to Obama’s (im)moral definition of fairness.