2016 Annual Dinner and Irving Kristol Award Presentation Video
A Message from Arthur Brooks
Remarks as prepared for delivery at the 2016 Annual Dinner:
Our dinner this year falls in a particularly unsettling period for our nation—politically, economically, and in terms of national security. As I think we would all agree—no matter what our particular politics—we face an extraordinary presidential election, one characterized not so much by optimism and hope, but by anxiety and polarization. We see historic levels of anger and distrust of the government and our political leaders.
In unsettling times, we do well to recall core values. At AEI, we are a community of scholars and supporters with intellectual freedom, so we disagree on many things. Some days it feels like we disagree on everything. But core values we most definitely have. And they are simple.
At AEI, we believe in the equality of human dignity, and the right of each person to realize his or her potential.
Dignity and potential are the “why” of our work. Our focus on free enterprise and American leadership are due to the fact that each of us, in our own way, has come to the conviction that American enterprise and leadership are what bring the most people dignity and potential, and thus the best life.
So why are so many Americans so angry today? Some say it is out-of-touch politicians; others say it is immigration or trade or our foreign policies. I believe these explanations are wrong.
"The job of enlightened leaders and public policy should not be to maintain people above starvation. It should be to make each person necessary."
Read the work of my colleague Charles Murray and you will find evidence that we have separated ourselves, physically, culturally, and especially economically, from tens of millions of Americans at the bottom of the income distribution. Read the work of Nick Eberstadt and you will learn that one in six able-bodied working-age men today—largely those in the bottom half in income—are totally idle.
Those left behind by the modern economy may not be missing meals, by and large. But they are not part of a system in which earned success comes as a result of hard work.
We have highly developed welfare systems that are good at helping people at the bottom of society, but we have become very bad at needing everyone. The essence of dignity and potential is being needed, economically and socially. That is what we are failing to do today, and it is an abrogation of the American ideal.
Like so many of you, I come from immigrants. My great grandparents came through Ellis Island through New York Harbor, where they would have seen the brand new Statue of Liberty. As you all know, the statue has at its base a poem, “The New Colossus.” It exhorts the world to send to America:
“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
That wasn’t just rhetoric. What sets this country apart from so many others is not that we are richer, and not even that we are freer, although these things are generally true. What sets America apart is that we derive from a stock of ambitious riff-raff, no better or worse than anybody, but determined to live a life of dignity and potential.
The result of our nation’s policies over the past decades has been to render this fact meaningless for millions of Americans. It has been to keep millions of people alive, thank God – but to render them superfluous.
The job of enlightened leaders and public policy should not be to maintain people above starvation. It should be to make each person necessary. That means an economy that is not overburdened by government so it can attract companies and create all kinds of jobs. It means breaking the iron cage of conventional education and giving people the skills they truly need. It means fighting the tyranny of bigotry and discrimination. It means acting with confidence around the world and attracting and welcoming people from everywhere who want to earn their success in a free and strong country.
Above all, it means remembering our moral duty of solidarity in dignity and potential with our fellow men and women.
These are the goals of the American Enterprise Institute. They are the reason my colleagues and I have dedicated our careers to this work. And it is why I am so very proud to stand before you tonight as the leader of this institution.
The 2016 Irving Kristol Award Recipient
Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, is this year's recipient. Dr. George’s career has been defined by the rare combination that marks a true public intellectual: deep scholarly rigor and broad public impact. His expert scholarship on questions of jurisprudence, the Constitution, natural law, and the intersection of religion, morality, and culture spans countless books, papers, and lectures and commands great admiration from the academy.
Dr. George applies a keen mind, a clear voice, and abundant good faith to some of the most pressing issues of our age. AEI is honored to present the Irving Kristol Award to him.
The Irving Kristol Award is the highest honor conferred by the American Enterprise Institute. AEI gives the award annually to an individual who has made exceptional intellectual and practical contributions to improve government policy, social welfare, or political understanding. Learn more about this award and previous recipients.
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