Arthur Brooks opens the third chapter of his book about free enterprise with a story adapted from Jonathan Haidt, of The Righteous Mind, about a family dog. The children want a dog desperately, and implore their mother for one. The father is unconvinced, and so a period of bargaining follows. Eventually, he gives in. But his worries are swept away by the loving pet, who they name Muffin. Muffin is not a hassle after all, and is soon beloved by all. But then, tragedy: a squirrel across the road, an oncoming car, and smack, Muffin is gone. The family is horrified and aghast, distraught at the loss. So upon consideration, they gather the dog’s lifeless form up, take it inside the house, to cook and eat it.
What? Did you recoil as I did? Why? It’s perfectly legal. Heck, in other countries, who knows what goes on! But Brooks’ point is: what’s wrong with that story? The reaction you’re having right now is one of basic deeply ingrained morality – only after a few minutes have passed do you shift to making an argument based on a logical basis. Brooks uses this story, along with heaps of social science data, to emphasize the power of moral arguments over logical, data-based arguments when it comes to evaluating what has the most impact on the human mind. He then connects this to the vast maw of emptiness on the right when it comes to advancing the moral argument for free enterprise, tackling issues of income inequality, fairness, and a true understanding of earned success. So long as those on the right are making their case primarily with charts and graphs, and not arguments based on essential moral truths, they are losing.
The quarrel, as he sees it, is between redistributive fairness ("It is fair to equalize rewards. Inequality is inherently unfair.") and meritocratic fairness ("Fairness means matching reward to merit. Forced equality is inherently unfair.") Brooks rejects the idea that fairness is an inherently subjective issue, and draws a distinction between the attitudes people have towards rewards they view as unearned (entitlements) and rewards they view as earned (such as better salaries for better workers in the same job). He writes: “If individual opportunity is a sham - if the system is fixed and some people get the breaks only by virtue of luck or birth or skin color - then inequality isn't fair at all. We should redistribute wealth the same way we should redistribute unearned candy. But if America is an opportunity society - if, in fact, people have the chance to work harder, get more education, and innovate - then rewarding merit is fair, and for some people to make more money than others is good and just.”
Since taking over the American Enterprise Institute several years ago, Brooks has become the Steve Jobs of the right’s think-tank world – a charismatic speaker, eclectic thinker, and unconventional thought leader who is uniquely attuned to the way people think, live, and converse in the real world. He is a think tank president as happy to quote Bono as he is Friedman. In the Wall Street Journal, he writes that “I learned to appreciate the American free enterprise system by quitting a job in Spain.” This is inspirational stuff. But the implicit conclusion of his book is not an uncontroversial one: it is, properly understood, an indictment of the right’s way of doing things in the post-Reagan era. Brooks is at heart a culture warrior, and he alone within the right’s intellectual leadership appears to understand that the battle over the future of American free enterprise and democratic capitalism is inherently a battle taking place within our culture, in normal conversation and interaction between citizens, not via Powerpoints.
Why did the right fail? The assumption was simple: conservatives thought they had won. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the explosive economic growth of the Reagan years, the leading voices of the right concluded that they no longer needed to advance the cause for free enterprise to the country, and certainly not to their own people. Yet slowly but surely, the left’s attempts to redefine the conversation about fairness and equality encroached steadily into the right’s territory. Consider evangelical Christians, of which Brooks considers himself one (albeit a practicing Catholic), as the population at the center of this tug of war. The language of social justice deployed by the progressive left is targeted directly at the Christian populations who have been voting for Republicans purely for reasons of culture for years, and who harbor a latent populism and a dislike for the super-rich. They care about human flourishing more than wealth, and while they know capitalism can deliver the latter, they’re not sure about the former.
Beyond the matter of communication, the right failed to guard against the chief perversions of free enterprise which lead to distrust and unfairness. One motive comes from Washington, using taxpayer money to reward friends and corporate cronies; and the other from Wall Street, which pushes the costs of its mistakes onto society through bailouts, trade quotas, sweetheart loan deals, and corporate subsidies. One robs the taxpayer to hand out political kickbacks; another robs them for investor profit. The working public assumes the risk while others reap the rewards. A century after Weber’s Protestant Ethic, the young Huckabee voter is less enthused about the McMansion and more concerned than ever that their personal success benefits the poor and needy. With the arrival of the economic crisis, the bottom fell out: after two decades of failing to make the case for free enterprise, the right saw support for democratic capitalism plummet.
The lesson to take from Brooks’ book is a straightforward one: those who favor the American system of free enterprise must learn to advocate for it clearly, in the language that has the most impact on those who can be persuaded. There are clear arguments to be made, and Brooks makes them. But if the free enterprise system which made America the envy of the world is going to endure, the right cannot afford for him to make them alone.