An Evening With Arthur Brooks

Also last night, Susie and I went to go hear Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute speak, at the Young Americans Center for Financial Education. The Center is truly a wonder, set up to teach grade schoolers about business, finance, and economics. Brooks spoke in Young Ameritowne, a large hall set up like a town square, ringed by mock storefronts – sponsored by actual businesses – that the kids role-play at operating. Go see it. (Now if they could only devise a program targeted at state legislators, we’d be golden.)

The failure of conservatism and free-market forces to arrest the country’s leftward drift for almost a century now should be of profound concern, and should be a puzzle to those of us fighting the fight. AEI was founded in 1938. Go back and read some of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s journals from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and you’ll see two types of articles. One it the neo-confederate and near-neo-confederate type, of which we are well rid, and which come from a world as alien as Gilbert & Sullivan.

The others are those that could have been written any time in the last four years, changing only the names of the programs and actors. Those arguments didn’t carry the day back then, yet we expect that they’ll work this time.

Why, when all the empirical evidence is that socialism doesn’t work, capitalism does, that less freedom produces greater misery, why have we been losing the fight for 100 years, since Wilson’s election? This despite poll after poll that shows that Americans continue to embrace capitalism under that name, and reject redistributionism, by overwhelming margins?

This question has been bothering me for well over a year now, because even with all the intellectual ammunition at our disposal, it doesn’t bode well for this fall, or for what comes afterwards, with so much at stake. And too few conservatives and libertarians seem to be asking it at all.

What a relief, then, that someone with Brooks’s intellect has recognized the same problem, and what a pleasure that he’s actually got a persuasive answer.

Brooks is such a clear thinker and gifted speaker that I can reproduce the bulk of his argument from memory a day later, and I have a terrible memory. He gives you just what you need to remember, and he gives you the pegs to hang it on. When Susie and I saw him speak at the Western Conservative Summit in 2010, we thought his was far and away the best talk of the weekend.

Brooks contends that both the liberal answer – that Americans secretly want socialism – and the conservative answer – that all we need is better data – are flawed, because they don’t address the moral arguments that people find persuasive.

What we’ve been missing is a moral defense of capitalism, one that doesn’t take an 1137-page hardback “novel” to summarize. Moral arguments deal with people, and arguments that deal with people are always more persuasive than arguments that deal in numbers.  Too often we dismiss that sort of thinking as “feelings over facts,” but Brooks contends, correctly, I think, that that’s a mistake.  It’s how people actually come to conclusions and make decisions, and winning the argument means reaching people on their terms, not making it necessary for them to come to us.

Brooks’s case consists of three parts:

1) Earned Success.  That is what truly defines happiness, not mere wealth. Earned success means linking success and its rewards to talent and effort. When results are decoupled from action, you get, “learned helplessness,” a recipe for unhappiness and frustration, since you’ve learned that you can’t really control your future.

2) Fairness. Conservatives like Milton Friedman resist talking about fairness, largely because we think it’s too subjective. But it’s also persuasive, and those same polls that show people love capitalism also show that they crave fairness. Well, what could be more fair than letting people keep what they earn, and decide how to use their own wealth? It’s a critical battlefield, one we can own, but not if we don’t show up for the fight.

3) Capitalism is good for the poor. Mere wealth may not be the measure of happiness, but poverty is a pretty good measure of misery. And it’s capitalism that reduces the misery that is a hand-to-mouth existence, not socialism, not all the good intentions in the world.

Moral defenses of capitalism abound. From Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, people have been thinking for generations about why a free system is a better system. But Novak is an academic, and neither Americans nor Europens feel tyrannized by the welfare state. The Greeks may yet provide a contemporary illustration, but thus far, most people see serfdom coming from the barrel of a gun, not a food stamp debit card.

The beauty of Brooks’s defense is that it not only speaks about people, it speaks to people, on terms that relate to their lives.  It does it without policy prescriptions that strike people as weird, or re-opening arguments that were dealt with 170 years ago, when we decided we didn’t like polygamy and did like internal improvements.

The YA Center promptly violated 1) and promoted learned helplessness by giving out copies of Brooks’s new book, The Road to Freedom, which promises to tighten up the argument, and explain, for instance, why direct help with the best of intentions can have very bad results.

I’m looking forward to reading it, and reviewing it.


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