In America, where the classical liberal tradition is stronger than in Europe, capitalism benefits from a widespread popular support. In a time when government is expanding its role, the flowering of studies and researches aimed at vindicating the virtues of the capitalist system is thus no surprise.
The Road to Freedom by Arthur Brooks stands in this framework and, more generally, in the wake traced by Michael Novak and Charles Murray, who respectively sketched out the debates on the morality of capitalism and the moral imperative of welfare reform with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) and Losing Ground (1984). Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and renowned economic analyst in the United States, introduces himself to Italian-language readers with a moral manifesto of capitalism in a crucial moment for the political and economic future of the West. The book, published in the run-up of the 2012 presidential election, is now available in a revised and updated Italian edition under the title La via della libertà (Rubbettino, 2013).
According to Novak, who makes an explicit reference to the ordoliberal tradition and to social market economy, both in the German version and in the Italian one expressed by Luigi Sturzo, capitalism is the only system to be worth implementing, while socialism and many other models are wonderful just in the abstract but catastrophic in their real version. This for the simple reason that, while capitalism deserves a “first cheer” on its ability to generate wealth and a second one for its promotion of political freedoms, it does not pretend to obtain a third one on the moral and spiritual side. Ultimately, capitalism does not pretend to establish a moral system, while being rather combinable with several understandings of the world and man. Nevertheless, the rejection of this pretense does not result necessarily in moral indifferentism since its very flexibility propels people to listen to and be in dialogue with different anthropological perspectives, which end up animating the system and characterizing it also on the moral and spiritual plane. With reference to the distinction between “market capitalism” and “historic capitalism” made by Wilhelm Röpke, Luigi Einaudi and Luigi Sturzo, we would never have a single capitalist model as each anthropological perspective has its own.
Despite 70% of Americans trust the free enterprise system, government keeps growing in size and scope. The supporters of market economy seem unable to stop this drift, which is driving the United States to an European-style statism. This happens because the very citizens who profess their support on the market and complain about the excessive tax burden are easily enticed by electoral pledges resulting in more public spending and would struggle to give up a long-term benefit or a favourable tax loophole.
In order to deter these attitudes, innervated by particular interests, and relaunch the capitalist system for the sake of common good, Brooks proposes an eminently moral argument. Too often, indeed, the cold statistical arguments expressed by economists and free-marketers do not persuade the hearts of people and obscure the authentic nature of capitalism. Human beings are intrinsically moral and, between any materialistic reasoning in favour of free enterprise and moralistic arguments in support of the bankrupt socialist policies, they are emphatically attracted by the latter.
As of today, market capitalism remains the sole economic system able to generate growth and contribute to the advancement of the whole society, says Brooks, but only a moral argument is likely to put light on it and persuade people to give up their small personal advantages in order to build a society rich of opportunity for everyone.
In order to be successful, an idea has to seduce people’s hearts first. This may require a long time. According to Brooks, the time has come for the supporters of freedom of enterprise to come forward and size every available opportunity to explain how the capitalist system is consistent not only from a scientific or material point of view, but also and foremost from a moral one. In doing this, the author debates several practical policy issues, for which, next to facts and figures, he exposes moral arguments.
The free market, which preserves justice and social mobility better than any other system, matches the moral concerns of people. It is indeed undeniable how excessive state aid benefits neither the human heart nor the social texture, and, on the contrary, is often only responsible of conducting toward a spiral of suffocation of individual initiative and dependence on the state. Only an active and polyarchic civil society is suitable for democracy and serves common good. According to Brooks, the key is “earned success”, which, through risks and sacrifice, gets people closer to personal fulfilment and happiness much more than welfare itself. The capitalist system, founded on freedom, competition and meritocracy, exalts individualities, generates equity of opportunity, raises the disadvantaged, propels people to help each other and predisposes them for charity.
Flavio Felice is Adjunct Scholar American Enterprise Institute and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies (Milan-Rome)