The value of free enterprise has nothing to do with money or wealth

Getty Images

Employees cheer during a meeting prior to the opening of a Fresh & Easy grocery as Tesco PLC, the UK's biggest retailer, officially entered the U.S. market, opening its first six stores in southern California on Nov. 8, 2007, in Los Angeles.

Article Highlights

  • There is a transcendent reason for which free enterprise matters most—and this is the case we all must be able to make

    Tweet This

  • "In order to win the fight for free enterprise we have to follow Adam Smith's lead" -@arthurbrooks

    Tweet This

  • We have to make the case for free enterprise, economic growth from a moral perspective, using language about happiness

    Tweet This

There’s no doubt it’s been a rough few years for free enterprise in the United States. The financial crisis that began in 2007 is still a drag on the economy, and for every sign of recovery there’s another dark cloud on the horizon. Entrepreneurs are unsure about the future and skittish about investing their time, treasure, and talent in growing their businesses, much less starting new ones. President Obama’s stimulus package was a dud, and the unemployment rate today is 50 percent higher than what he promised would be the worst-case scenario.

It’s easy to get discouraged. But we cannot afford to be defeatist—or be defeated. Principled advocates of free enterprise have to redouble our efforts to make the case for free enterprise and confront its detractors with the truth. This means we have to explain in clear and unambiguous terms why free enterprise matters to the United States.

It might seem that the best case for free enterprise is the material one. Free enterprise lets people make more money, buy more and nicer stuff, and have a greater degree of comfort. The freer our economy is, the more competitive the US economy is vis-à-vis the rest of the world. And so on.

But these aren’t our best arguments. There is another reason, a transcendent reason, for which free enterprise matters most—and this is the case we all must be able to make today.
"We have to make the case for free enterprise and economic growth from a moral perspective, using language about opportunity and happiness and living a meaningful life." - Arthur Brooks
We all learned early on in school that the Declaration of Independence claimed for each of us the unalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note that the founders didn’t assert a right to be happy; such is the domain of tinpots and crackpots, of 1984’s “Ministry of Plenty” and Josef Stalin’s aggrandizing self-description as the Soviet Union’s “Constructor of Happiness.” So what, in practice, does this right to pursue happiness mean?

It means the right to define and earn our happiness through our ideas, hard work, and gumption, to earn our success by creating value honestly, in our own lives and in the lives of others. It doesn’t mean the pursuit of a big lottery win or an inheritance. Those bring money, but not happiness. And a mountain of evidence shows that after a fairly low threshold, more money doesn’t make us happier. The best case for free enterprise has nothing at all to do with money or material goods or wealth. Those are just icing on the cake. We must stop talking about free enterprise as just an engine of wealth creation. It’s much more than that.

In short, the secret to the pursuit of happiness is earning our own success; creating value with our lives and in the lives of others. This earned success is the fruit of hard work and just rewards in a system built on merit. Only in a free enterprise system is effort and innovation rewarded over connections and predation. (And this means that we have to draw a distinction between free enterprise, which is based on opportunity and competition between ideas, and corporate cronyism, which is just another form of statism masquerading as free enterprise.)

Of course, none of this is new to free enterprise advocates. Most of us have known our whole adult lives that an enterprise society provides the greatest freedom and opportunity for people, not just in material ways, but by allowing us to give our lives meaning and purpose. Yet we’ve shelved transcendent arguments and devoted far too much time and effort to making arguments about efficiency—arguments our opponents largely accepted (or at least stopped trying to refute) over a decade ago.

Instead, we have allowed the enemies of free enterprise—the statists, the redistributionists, the folks for whom every problem is a government program waiting to be enacted—to claim the mantle of fairness and the moral high ground for their discredited ideas. That needs to change. After all, Adam Smith wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments two decades before The Wealth of Nations. Efficiency came after morality, not vice versa.

It is time to contest the moral high ground. In order to win the fight for free enterprise against its opponents who are once again beating the drum to turn America into some sort of Anglophone Sweden (or Greece), we have to follow Smith’s lead. We have to make the case for free enterprise and economic growth from a moral perspective, using language about opportunity and happiness and living a meaningful life. We have to explain how the pursuit of happiness requires the opportunity to earn our success, and how earned success comes only when we succeed on our own terms.

The statists preach a crass, shallow gospel of materialism. We cannot defeat them by merely responding with claims about economic efficiency. We can win the battle for free enterprise in the United States. But we have to say what is written on our hearts, not just on our bank statements.

Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is “The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future” (Basic Books, 2010).

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Arthur C.
Brooks
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.


    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

  • Assistant Info

    Name: Danielle Duncan
    Phone: 202.419.5213
    Email: danielle.duncan@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.