Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the term “culture war” was used to describe a variety of public moral conflicts. AEI’s Arthur Brooks sees a new fight taking place in today’s culture, but this time it’s not about guns, abortions, or gays.
This time it’s a battle over free enterprise.
Brooks, who is president of the American Enterprise Institute, successfully captures this struggle in his new book, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government will Shape America’s Future.
Brooks was kind enough to talk about The Battle with Remnant Culture in this one-on-one interview. I am confident his answers will sufficiently whet your appetite, but I also encourage you to read my highly favorable review if you’re interested in purchasing a copy.
Q: Your primary argument is that we are currently in the midst of a culture war between free enterprise and big government. Why do you see this as a cultural struggle?
The struggle between free enterprise and big government is not about which system is more efficient at producing goods or services. It’s about who we are as a people — about our beliefs and values. It shows what we think about things like fairness, initiative, self-reliance, and accountability. These aren’t economic terms. They’re “character” terms, expressions of culture. Free enterprise is the system that best accommodates these values and beliefs, and this makes the struggle against big government a cultural one. The fact that free enterprise also is the most efficient means of creating wealth and economic growth is a secondary consideration. Though not a bad one, at that.
Q: Explain the concept of the “70-30 Nation.”
As I point out in The Battle, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of free enterprise. No matter how pollsters frame the question, about 70 percent of us prefer free enterprise over big government. The other 30 percent are more inclined toward the statism and redistributionism of Europe’s social democracies. The “hard core” of the 30 percent is made up of the usual suspects — from the worlds of academia, the media, and entertainment industries. And most worryingly of all, it is comprised of a growing number of young people.
Q: If the 30 percent coalition currently holds the “moral high ground” on economic issues, why do they remain at a mere 30 percent of the population?
Well, as we saw in the 2008 elections, the 30 percent has the ability to expand into a majority, on occasion. It was the financial markets crisis that gave them the opportunity to do just that. They developed a “narrative” about what caused the crisis, who was to blame for the crisis, and how government would get America out of the crisis. And enough Americans — panicked at what was happening to the economy — believed them. In some ways, those of us in the free enterprise movement are at fault. We abandoned the moral high ground to the statists. The Battle is part of the effort to take it back.
Q: You argue that socialism is “an ideology driven by raw materialism,” but how can a broke, college-age socialist be more materialistic than a wealthy banker?
Because the college-age socialist believes that the way to increase happiness in society is to move chunks of cash around. This is an entirely mechanistic, materialistic view of the world. Now, the wealthy banker may well be guilty of this, too (because there are certainly materialistic bankers around). But the banker just might have already discovered that wealth doesn’t bring happiness — and that you can’t share the happiness by sharing the wealth. Happiness comes from something else. It comes from earned success.
Q: Much of your book indeed focuses on the importance of earned success. Why does earned success deliver more happiness than, say, a government handout?
Not only does earned success deliver more happiness than a government handout, it delivers more success than all other forms of unearned income as well — from a win at the lottery to a surprise inheritance. Each of these things can deliver more material goods to the recipient, but they can’t deliver more happiness. That only comes with earned success — the belief that you are creating value in your life or in the lives of others. That’s why people who earn success in non-economic pursuits — from fatherhood to volunteerism — can feel the same bliss as the billionaire entrepreneur. And why a poor man who believes he has successfully created something of value will be much better off than a trust-fund beneficiary who has lots of inherited money but no earned success.
Q: You talk about how it is better to “stimulate prosperity” than it is to “treat poverty.” What do you mean by this?
To use a medical analogy, it’s like the difference between promoting healing and treating the symptoms. And as with so much else, it comes back to the question of earned success. “Treating poverty” can amount to the simple transfer of resources, which divorces money from earned success and thus involves no transfer of happiness. “Stimulating prosperity” seeks to transform lives through work and the earned success that this brings.
Q: You use Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus as an example of someone who stimulated prosperity by pursuing a market among the poor (in “micro loans”). Is there a difference between Yunus’ social entrepreneurship and the commercialized charity that is common in today’s pop culture (e.g. the Red Campaign)?
I would hesitate to question the motives or good intentions of anyone who seeks to work on behalf of the poor around the world. But there is a huge body or research that indicates how simply sending aid to the Third World will not accomplish what it is intended to accomplish. It’s the international equivalent of handing out welfare. And against this somber reality, the work of Muhammad Yunus is an encouraging and hopeful sign — a prime example of the superiority of stimulating prosperity over treating poverty.
Q. You don’t mention much about religion in your book, but do you think it has a role to play in promoting free enterprise?
I could say that the early 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber beat me to the punch on that one, with his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But it is true that people of faith should be the strongest supporters of the free enterprise system. This is so because free enterprise gives individuals the greatest opportunity to flourish, to achieve their potential, and to exercise their God-given talents and abilities. And as I’ve tried to show, free enterprise (like religion) is essentially non-materialistic and grounded in values.
Q: You briefly mention that there is a difference between military spending and what you call “enterprise-wrecking government boondoggles.” Many libertarian, free-enterprise types would cringe at such a distinction. How do you reconcile this?
I believe that America is a force for good around the world, and that one of the ways in which it exercises that role is through the right and judicious use of its military power. But as you say, the mention of theses matters is indeed brief in the book, and for good reason (not just because I was nearing the end of the final chapter and my editor was eager to get her hands on the manuscript). These are complicated matters, and whether America’s military spending is consistent with the 70 percent majority’s support for free enterprise culture is indeed a question that is worthy of future and more considered attention. Perhaps in my next book!
Q: Although The Battle contains an enormous amount of data and research, it comes off sort of like a manifesto. I’ve read two of your previous books (Who Really Cares? and Gross National Happiness) and both took a more extensive approach to discussing similar issues. What inspired you to write a book that was more of a call to action than just a social analysis?
I like to think that The Battle is still mostly social analysis. And that’s the feedback that I’m getting from many people who pick up the book — surprise that it has less to do with economics and politics than it has do with individual flourishing and the human heart. But I admit that there are policy implications in the book even if there are no policy prescriptions. However, it’s the social analysis that comes first, not the other way around. The data lead the way — and if the data about subjects like earned success lead to particular “policy takeaways,” then I am (if you’ll excuse the pun) happy to point them out.
To purchase a copy of The Battle, click here.
To read my review of The Battle, click here.
To hear more of Brooks’ thoughts on The Battle, watch his Bradley Lecture given at AEI.