May 25th, 2010
Culture, Economics, Politics
Arthur Brooks, the polymath president of the American Enterprise Institute, today released his newest book, The Battle. It’s one barnstormer of a defense of free markets and a very lucid indictment of Brooks’ ideological opponents. Short, to the point, well-researched, and simple without being simplistic, this is a must-read for anyone who’s been bemoaning what for the last few years has looked like the death of intellectual conservatism.
Brooks’ thesis is that America is in the midst of a culture war, one that splits citizens who support markets and free enterprise from those who distrust it and want to fundamentally transform what America was, is, and will be; Brooks refers to the former as the 70 percent coalition and the latter as the 30 percent coalition, citing a plethora of data suggesting that Americans are split roughly 70/30 on the questions underlying the two different worldviews. (This echoes, but I think is emphatically different from, Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone coalition” and “takings coalition” division of the right and left.)
The difference between these groups has nothing to do with God, guns, and gays; rather, it’s about free markets and free enterprise. (To be sure, Brooks never touches on social issues.) Nor is this merely a consequentialist or Benthamite argument; Brooks writes that the “culture war between free enterprise and statism is not [about] material riches—it is [about] human flourishing. This is a battle about nothing less than our ability to pursue happiness.”
Brooks writes of the 30 percent coalition:
The 30 percent coalition is led by people who are smart, powerful, and strategic. These are many of the people who make opinions, entertain us, inform us, and teach our kids in college. They are 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…. The intellectual upper class has become the most important party in the 30 percent coalition—the chief adversary of the free enterprise system today. And at the head of the intellectual upper class are our current leaders in Washington DC—starting with activist, bestselling author, and Ivy League academic, President Barack Obama.
Unlike some of the more visible and base-rousing conservative leaders (Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, etc.), Brooks isn’t arguing that there’s some conspiracy of intellectuals keeping Real ‘Murkins down and out — he just says that’s how the demographics and electoral politics have worked out. And the 30 percent coalition has been very effective at cobbling together a base, which is predominantly young.
To be sure, the 70/30 split is merely a heuristic, a rule of thumb; pedantry by critics about whether it’s a 60/40 split or an 80/20 split misses the point. Brooks brings a significant amount of public opinion and polling data to the table. Some of his characterizations of the 30 percent coalition seem somewhat less than charitable, though in the main they seen to be an accurate assessment. Remember that Brooks isn’t arguing the 53% of American voters who voted for Obama share the views of the 30 percent coalition; indeed, at the crux of his argument is the distinction between general worldview and voting behavior.
But the point of the book isn’t to draw out shades of grey. Rather, it’s to do quite the opposite: argue that there are two distinct visions for America, and a battle between them is playing out right now. Brooks is writing in defense of free enterprise. He wants not just to rally the base, but to lay out clearly for centrists the two paths that lie before them. Pick one or the other, Brooks implicitly claims; 70 percent plus 30 percent is 100 percent, after all. It’s not that there is no middle ground in policy, just in underlying ideology.
That Brooks makes his appeal for free markets not on utilitarian grounds but on moral grounds alone makes this book worth reading. Brooks acknowledges that defenders of free markets have been too quick to give away the moral high ground. Free enterprise, Brooks argues, is not a necessary evil — it’s a moral imperative:
To win the culture war, the 70 percent majority must find a way to reclaim the morality of their worldview. Those of us in the free enterprise movement must show that while 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 and be prepared to defend them against attack. The following is the first and most important of these moral principles: The purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism. Free enterprise is not simply an economic alternative. Free enterprise is about who we are as a people and who we want to be. It embodies our power as individuals and our independence from the government. In short, enterprise is an act of self-expression—a declaration of what we truly value—and a social issue for Americans.
And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of Brooks’ argument. Economic freedom is not about crass utilitarian calculation. It’s about the sublime: self-actualization, control of one’s one destiny, and individualism. And conservatives, Brooks argues, need to stop ceding morality to the 30 percent coalition, for instance by allowing liberals to use words like “fairness” unchecked.
As a researcher long interested in happiness (what classical liberals, borrowing from Aristotle, have traditionally called “the good life”), it’s no surprise that this figures prominently into Brooks’ argument; he draws a distinction between material comforts and the happiness that comes with “earned success.” Free markets provide the greater opportunity for earned success, Brooks argues, and therefore greater happiness. Again, there’s a sharp distinction between the beliefs of the two coalitions here:
What do [the 30 percent coalition] believe to be the greatest problem of poor people in America? Insufficient income. What would be evidence of a fairer society? Greater income equality. For Obama and the leaders of the 30 percent coalition, money buys happiness, as long as it is distributed fairly…. By contrast, the 70 percent majority are New Age radicals. They have simple faith that ingenuity and hard work can and should be rewarded. They admire creative entrepreneurs who have no legal authority and disdain the rule-making bureaucrats who wield pure power. They know that no amount of unearned money can ever heal the human heart: Money is fine, but it is something else entirely—something less tangible and more transcendental—that really brings satisfaction. The 70 percent majority understands that the secret to human flourishing is not money but earned success in life. People flourish when they earn their own success. It’s not the money per se, which is merely a measure—not a source—of this earned success. More than any other system, free enterprise enables people to earn success and thereby achieve happiness. For that reason, it is not just an economic alternative but a moral imperative. It’s not just the most efficient system; it’s the most fair and the most just.
Two other things are worth noting. First, Brooks is no GOP apologist. He routinely excoriates the Bush administration for profligate spending and “weaken[ing] the culture of free enterprise.” During the 2000s,
"the GOP talked about free enterprise while simultaneously growing the government with borrowed money and increasing the percentage of citizens with no income tax liability. These politicians spent billions of tax dollars on special interests with every bit as much gusto as the most shameless statists on the left."
Brooks, formerly registered in both major political parties and now declaring himself an independent, ends his book with an appeal to principle over naked political power. The book is about principle, not party; this is true in a meaningful way, and not merely as a slogan.
Second, Brooks seems an unlikely spokesperson for free markets and free enterprise, especially given conservatism’s standard bearers for the past decade. Brooks holds a Ph.D. from the RAND Graduate School, held a named chair at the Maxwell School at Syracuse (generally considered the nation’s finest public administration school, hardly a discipline associated with conservatism), and lives in suburban Maryland. He’s a far cry from most conservative spokesmen.
Even more surprising, Brooks didn’t graduate from college until he was 30… because he was traveling around the country playing classical music, from which he took a personal lesson in the importance of deciding and carrying out one’s own destiny:
At nineteen, I dropped out of college to take a full-time job playing chamber music. I made little money and spent months every year driving around America in a van with four other guys. Once we drove straight from Baltimore to San Francisco, only stopping for gas. But it was a great job. I had control over my artistic destiny, liked my colleagues, and every night played music that I helped choose. After six years, I quit that job to play with a symphony orchestra in Spain. I expected to love it—great music, really good money, a fun place to live, and no van trips. But I was miserable.
Here’s the takeaway: If you’re a conservative or a libertarian, you’ll love this book. If you’re an unyielding progressive, you’ll hate it. Either way it will evoke strong feelings.
Read the rest here: http://sometimesright.com/2010/05/ar...ks-the-battle/
Seems "spot on" to me