MAKING THE MORAL CASE FOR FREE ENTERPRISE
July 1, 2015
Adam Smith. Friedrich Hayek. Milton Friedman. All legendary apostles of economic and political liberty. Now add Arthur Brooks to that pantheon, and you have The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise (Basic Books, 2012), a slim yet potent volume published in 2012 that gives us both blueprint and rallying cry in an era when many fear that the battle has already been lost.
Not so, says Brooks, who argues that those who cherish the free enterprise system have argued its merits the wrong way. Our thesis is a moral one, Brooks suggests, and only moral arguments will prevail. While we have hammered away at data that clearly show the benefits of freedom (higher standards of living, multiple chickens in every pot), the other side—the statists, he calls them—have often had the better side of the debate because they played the morality card.
We’ve all heard it: debate with a person of the left and sooner or later you’ll be labeled “mean-spirited” or “greedy” or—curse of curses—“materialistic.” If we’d stop hammering at data and start suggesting that expanding liberty is the right thing to do in a moral sense, we’d connect with the substantial majority of Americans who agree with us.
Brooks does not neglect the data in his book. China, for example, has accounted for at least 75 percent of the reduction in poverty in the developing world since that regime began to embrace free enterprise. Sixty years ago North and South Korea had identical gross domestic products. Today, thanks to economic liberty in South Korea, it is the 13th richest nation on earth, while North Koreans—same people, same climate, different systems—spend much of their shabby lives grubbing for roots.
But Brooks suggests that all those numbers barely put a dent in the arguments of statists who counter with such nonsense as “you just want to throw granny out in the snow!”
“Free enterprise,” writes Brooks, “is the system of values and laws that respects private property and limits government, encourages competition and industry, celebrates achievement based on merit, and creates individual opportunity.” Note that Brooks calls free enterprise a system of values—a term that implies a moral base.
“Our ideas about free enterprise and liberty were born from a sense of what was right and what helps us thrive as a people, not from a monomaniacal obsession with what makes us rich,” Brooks continues. In other words, we tossed that tea into Boston Harbor not because of the extra pennies it cost but over a principle.
The Brooks formula for debating the merits of free enterprise successfully is a simple one: stress that earned success leads to happiness, that free enterprise rewards merit, and that it lifts the poor away from and ultimately out of despair. These are moral arguments; there’s not a data point in them.
Brooks admits that the current dire state of American public policy—high taxes, astronomical deficits, intrusive regulation, diminishing liberty—is “the product of nearly a century of accumulated policy.” The answer, he says, could take as long, but it won’t happen at all unless and until we shift the debate to a moral one and start winning elections and debates in our policymaking bodies like Congress and state legislatures.
What’s moral about earned success? “People flourish when they control their lives,” he says, and that control is best achieved by earning what one receives, not impotently accepting it from government. Brooks notes that Americans work harder and longer than most Europeans, in large measure because those Europeans have already yielded up their economic autonomy to a paternalistic nanny state.
“But it’s not fair!” the left screams. Yes it is, says Brooks, noting that true fairness rewards merit, a moral act, rather than resorting to redistributionist policies that do exactly the opposite.
Brooks is at his best when citing evidence that a free economy both stimulates upward economic mobility and makes even those on the bottom rungs richer and happier. When the much-maligned “one percent” succeed, the “99 percent” dine from an expanded pie as well.
From these moral arguments Brooks turns to a set of specific prescriptions for restoring economic and personal liberty to Americans. Many are familiar, from entitlement reforms to rein in exploding deficits (which Brooks ably describes as immoral) to trimming corporate and personal income taxes with consequent reductions in government spending and power.
But the core of his book is that free enterprise unleashed results in personal and economic liberty that are morally right for humanity. That’s an argument the left would have a hard time countering, and one that a few 2016 presidential candidates are already starting to echo. And it’s about time.