Archive for May 23rd, 2012

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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Health Care, Religion, Government, and The Left – Part II

Last night, I posted some audio of lawyers at a loss for words at a panel discussion on religion and government.  This morning, I’d like to post another clip from the Q&A, one that I think is particularly revealing about the left’s attitude towards religious liberty.  The commenter is Ed Kahn, the lawyer for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, and he’s discussing to what extent a hospital’s association with a religious body should matter.  Shorter answer: none.  But let him tell you himself.

(The audio quality here is markedly worse than the clip last night from Ms. Hart.  I think it’s a combination of Mr. Kahn’s voice and the fact that he was sitting farther away from the mike, but there’s a persistent hiss.  I ran it through the noise reduction algorithm, and while it got rid of most of the hiss, there’s a residue that makes it sound like he’s talking from the engine room of a starship, if the engine were powered by boilers, but I think it’s easier to hear than the raw sound.)

They can close shop on Saturday, but that doesn’t make them like a church or synagogue in my view.  And if they’re going to hold out their product or their service to the public, then they should not be able to mandate that their religious beliefs to which they subscribe, that the results of that belief should be visited on the people who are entitled to sign up for that service.

If there’s a market where comprehensive health care is available without restriction, and people understand that, then maybe it’s ok for somebody to say that we’re a Catholic health insurer and our hospital is going to be open six days a week, but our emergency room will be open on the Sabbath.  But in general, I think that if you’re providing a public service that is a necessity, especially, that it ought to be provided across the board, and the law ought to require it as a condition of licensing.

Some states do say to Catholic (unintelligible) hospitals, “You cannot restrict (unintelligible) abortion, you cannot restrict contraception services or tubal ligation,” and that, I think, is the better standard.  So I start there.  I think the concept that these organizations are health care, providing what’s a necessity, not simply a good like a candy store, overrides the ability to finesse what services they will or won’t provide, given an economic necessity or need, especially in monopoly situations.

There’s almost too much here to unpack, but let’s give it a try.  It embodies almost all the current liberal assumptions about having a right to other people’s work product, and the inconsequentiality of others’ religious beliefs, to the extent that they differ from your own.

The phrase that really popped out at me was this: “…people who are entitled to sign up for that service.”  Who talks this way, about people “signing up for a service?”  The Left, apparently.  Remember when Michael Moore rolled up to congressmen, asking them if they would be willing “sign their kids up to serve in Iraq,” as though it were a particularly violent venue for sleep-away camp.  Seventh-graders are “entitled to sign up for” band.  Adults purchase products and services with their own money.  Seventh-graders buy things, too, generally with their parents’ money, which leads them to feel entitled.

The statement provides a case study of the inevitable intersection between social issues and economic ones.  The Left feels entitled to sign other people up to do things for them, without realizing that at a minimum, there’s an opportunity cost.  Grant the dubious proposition that All Hospitals Are Created Equal, that you can require anything calling itself a hospital to provide a menu of services at all times, in all places.  They still can’t pay for the staff, facilities, and equipment to be perpetually on-call for every conceivable service or procedure.  They will have to make choices.  And since they are the ones providing the services, their own priorities and values will and ought to guide those choices.

That’s really the only fair way to decide.

If Charles Bronson were still around, he might reprise his scene from The Magnificent Seven where he throws the Mexican child over his knee and whacks him a couple of times for ingratitude, reminding him that his parents don’t do everything for him because they have to.  (Hey, you want to be treated like a child?)  Nobody makes the church or churches run these hospitals in the first place, except themselves from their own religious conviction.  If that same religious conviction prevents them from providing other services, Planned Parenthood should just see that as a market opportunity.

Of course, the same law that enables the HHS Mandate also makes it virtually impossible to open new, specialized, physician-owned hospitals, thus providing further justification for commandeering existing facilities.


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