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Arthur Brooks, the president of AEI, has emerged as one of America’s leading advocates for free enterprise and the moral conditions of prosperity. ConservativeHome’s Ryan Streeter recently put ten questions to him.
RS: In your recent book, The Battle, you have redefined the culture struggle in America away from the social issues, to free enterprise. Why?
Brooks: Yes, the book identifies a culture struggle–but not one as people have typically understood it. Americans are not just arguing over this or that economic policy. They’re really arguing over cultural imperatives. Do we want to become more of a European-style social democracy, or do we truly want to embrace free enterprise?
Data show that Americans are emotionally invested in the idea that we are a free enterprise country-not because of economics, but because of who we are as a people and what we value. What’s central to America-going back to the founders-is liberty and how we exercise it in our daily lives. Today, as I show in The Battle, we primarily do that through our system of free enterprise.
RS: Who is your intellectual hero and why?
Brooks: Well, I have a few. First, Milton Friedman. He was one of the first economists to lay the cultural groundwork for what we now so commonly refer to as the free enterprise system. He wrote his books as economic works, but they became cultural phenomena, because he wrote in aspirational terms that people could understand and identify with. He saw free enterprise as not just one economic philosophy among many but a core element of who we are as Americans, how we operate, how we live out the freedom we all cherish.
Another hero is Irving Kristol. His main contribution wasn’t in showing why one must be a conservative, but in helping us appreciate why “liberalism” (as we have come to define it in the U.S.) was so deeply unsatisfactory for happy lives and healthy societies.
Of course, I would cite James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray as intellectual heroes. They are the most influential social scientists of the past 50 years. Their work has addressed the essential questions of society and culture, and shown an entire generation of social scientist how to think about big, difficult issues. They were especially influential among social scientists in think tanks rather than in the academy, among those who most influence public policy. I’m a social scientist because of Wilson and Murray. It’s as if they provided a manual on how to work through tough issues in social science.
RS: Which two or three books (besides your own!) have been especially influential on your overall outlook on public policy?
Brooks: Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has been more influential than anything else. I know it’s a bit of a cliché (and I should probably come up with something under the radar that seems deeply original). But let’s be honest–the book is truly great and everyone should read it, or re-read it. Contemporary books include Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense.
RS: Looking to 2012, what are the three big ideas that you think should define the presidential race?
Brooks: First, free enterprise is a mainstream, not a Republican, issue. Seventy percent of Americans think it’s the best way of organizing our lives in this country. Free enterprise transcends political identity, so candidates absolutely have to talk about it.
Second, free enterprise is not about money. It’s primarily about human flourishing. If we want to believe it’s about money, we then find ourselves governed by people who choose to see life in purely economic, materialistic terms. I believe in policies that support free enterprise–not primarily so we get richer, but rather so earn our success, which is at the root of the pursuit of happiness. This is hardly radical stuff–Thomas Jefferson’s used set this is an “inalienable right” in the Declaration of Independence. And that’s ultimately what we want for our kids, isn’t it? If we forget this point, we get stuck talking only about money as if it’s the only goal of our economic lives–and we lose the argument.
The third big idea is that the free enterprise system is the fairest system. During the presidential campaign in 2008 it was regularly claimed that we needed a fairer system in America-and by “fairer,” politicians meant a more redistributive one. But the reality is that most Americans believe that if you reward making rather than taking, then you have the fairest system of all. This is actually what the vast majority of us believe. So let’s remember what real fairness is and build policy and political objectives around it.
RS: How would you and your colleagues at AEI advise policymakers on the best way to inject growth and job creation back into our economy?
Brooks: Our theme at AEI is to set America free. Why? Because hard work, merit, earned success, and excellence are ultimately the things that matter most. The end game is not government control of our economy–it’s setting entrepreneurs free. You can see this “set America free” agenda in Kevin Hassett’s work on the tax code. You see it in Andrew Biggs’s research on entitlement reform. It suffuses Peter Wallison’s efforts on the right way to deal with financial markets. Then there’s Fred Kagan’s work on the freedom agenda in foreign policy. Rick Hess’s scholarship on education reform seeks to set people free. The list goes on and on at AEI. We need a range of policies that set people free to be productive and entrepreneurial-and the economic growth and job creation will follow.
RS: Which three things do the GOP and American conservatism more broadly need to change about themselves going forward?
Brooks: Conservatives need to be able to do four things better than they do currently. First, they need to be comfortable making the moral case about enterprise. They must be able to talk about what they believe, what they stand for, what freedom is, and how it is preserved. Conservatism in America is based on free enterprise. That’s quite different from European conservatism, especially the continental variety. But in America there is a moral sense about enterprise, why it matters, why and how people flourish when they earn their success through hard work and initiative. This is a truly liberating, transcendent, and transformative message.
Second, conservatives have to persuade people that they’re not just into wholesale “demolition” but that they know exactly what they’re against and for what reason. A “Party of No” can say it is against everything the current administration is trying to do, but that’s not very helpful and will wear thin. The objective must be to say which policies are bad, which are good, and why.
Third, they have to be deadly serious about putting forward new solutions, actual policies that will help the country. Representative Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” is especially good in this regard.
Fourth, conservatives have got to remember what true leadership is–and demonstrate it. One vital aspect of leadership is the ability to get people to understand that nothing–not even freedom–is free. Great leaders know that their priorities come with costs, but that the benefits will ultimately outweigh these costs. Leaders can explain this honestly, and bring people with them. Leaders don’t pretend we can have something for nothing.
RS: Talk about the Tea Party and what it means for America. Can it continue as a broad movement with no center, or does it now need somehow to institutionalize itself?
Brooks: The Tea Party is a good thing for America–and shows vividly that Americans see our economy in values-based terms. The movement is about renewal and has a kind of moral fervor to it. It’s an ethical populism, and that’s very positive in my view. It shouldn’t be confused for economic populism, the soak-the-rich stuff. Quite the contrary. The movement is basically saying: We demand that our government not bail us out. Extraordinary–and exactly the opposite of what popular movements in France, Greece and Spain are demanding.
The Tea Party is especially interesting because it’s not something a group of well-connected elites hatched in a conference room. The Tea Party sprung up from core values, from a sense of propriety about our nation and what we should care about as a society. And who does the Tea Party threaten? Apparatchik politicians from both parties who have grown comfortable with the status quo. I like this a lot.
RS: You’re now finishing up your second year at the helm of AEI. How do you characterize AEI’s role at this unique time in history?
Brooks: Times like this are why AEI was created. For an organization that exists for the sake of freedom and enterprise, the most opportune time is when those ideals are in question. We are at a time when AEI and its scholars are in demand more than ever. In 1938, AEI’s founders rightly thought free enterprise was under severe attack. We’re in that situation again.
I should add that the value we create transcends political ideology. Liberals need AEI as much as conservatives do, because they need the free enterprise system too. We’ll look back at 2010 and 2011 as a time when politics in America found free enterprise at its cultural core again, and I hope AEI will be a big part of that story. Americans-regardless of party-want their country to be free and enterprising.
AEI is having its best year ever in many ways. The reason, I believe, is that our scholars are meeting a real need in our country to provide the ideas that express our values and will strengthen our future. It’s a real privilege to be here in this role.
RS: When you take a long view of America and the challenges it faces, what advice would you give to young people who might be thinking about getting involved in public life?
Brooks: People are policy in a democracy. If good people don’t go into public life, we’ll be self-selecting a permanent mediocre bureaucracy to make major decisions that don’t reflect the values that most Americans share. We need people in important positions in public life who understand how the state is accountable to citizens and who see a moral purpose in what the state does. So to free enterprise enthusiasts who are contemplating public sector life, I say: thank you.
It’s easy for conservatives to dismiss bureaucrats and others on government payrolls, but that’s not helpful in the end. It’s more like a self-fulfilling prophesy, which in turn is ultimately nihilistic. It is critical to work hard for limited self-government, and to stop waste and out-of-control government growth. But that is different than saying government and government workers are inherently the problem. That discourages the very people who we want representing us in a lean, efficient, effective, accountable, and transparent public sector.
RS: If you could wave a wand and change one thing about Washington DC, what would it be?
Brooks: Weather and traffic. But more substantively: I would change how some of the “idea class” in Washington operates. Washington has indisputably become the idea capital of the world. There are two kinds of people here–those who want to engage in debate, and those who want to shut down the debate–by wrecking reputations, indulging in character assassination, and trying to “defund” opponents. That is really unfortunate, because–as one of the former presidents of AEI used to say–the competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society. That is a competition we at AEI welcome.
But despite this complaint, Washington DC is a wonderful and interesting place, and I love living here.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of AEI.
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