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The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur Brooks

Arthur Brooks

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On August 23, 2010
Last modified:October 13, 2012


Arthur Brooks new book, The Battle, offers a plan of action for the defense of free enterprise. In it, he identifies "the new culture war" the outcome of which will decide America's future.

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it. Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

Arthur Brooks calls the battle between free enterprise and big government “the new culture war.”  It is a contest, the results of which will determine America’s future. Using opinion polls, surveys, voter statistics and other data, Brooks reports that 70% of Americans support free enterprise and 30% favor the redistributionist policies of expansionist government. He further divides the 30% into two groups, leaders and followers. The leaders are the influential elites: academia, the entertainment industry, and the media. The followers are adults under 30 and ethnic minorities, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics who, according to Pew’s 2009 poll, expressed more faith in government’s ability “to help people trying to move up the economic ladder” than the rest of the population.

But the real core of the 30% coalition is not minorities or San Franciscans, but young people – adults under 30. This is not just one fifth of the adult population: It is the future of our country. And this group has exhibited a frightening openness to statism in the age of Obama.

Brooks identifies academia as part of the 30% coalition, but leaves the contribution of public education to inference. Determining how the 30% got that way is outside the purview of this book. However, it is a topic that needs explication if the battle Brooks describes is not to be a skirmish, albeit a major one, in a continuing war.

Truth to tell, this culture war isn’t new at all. It’s been raging for decades, but it’s been a one-sided campaign, which made it no contest at all. The big government tide kept advancing, while conservatives were too busy earning a living and caring for their families to notice.

The statists infiltrated public education (beginning in elementary school) through textbooks, the influence of the National Education Association, and the curriculum weakening fads conceived by left-leaning academics.  Consequently, college isn’t the first place that young people encounter statist ideas, it is the culmination of a socialist education.   Young people are ‘open to statism’ because they know little about history and government, and what they do know has been filtered through a “progressive” sieve.

Brooks examines the 2008 presidential campaign and explains why the Republican charge that Obama leaned socialist did not resonate with the under 30s.

To anyone over 40, the word socialism brings immediately to mind the humanity crushing evils of the Soviet empire. Socialism was the banner under which tens of millions were killed and hundreds of millions were subjugated but now consider a twenty-five year old, born in 1985. The Soviet Union fell apart when she was six years old, and the only true socialists she has ever encountered were her college professors. For forty-year-olds, like me, socialism means gulags. To twenty-year-olds, it means boring but harmless middle-aged guys with beards and PhDs.

For whatever reason, young people don’t find socialism inherently repellent. This is an enormous opening for the 30 percent coalition.

Brooks discusses the dynamics of the 2008 election. …for the Obama team, the economic crisis represented more than just a chance to win. It was a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the American culture. Think about Rahm Emanuel’s now (in)famous comments about crisis and opportunity.

Five key claims about the financial crisis, which Brooks calls the Obama Narrative, are designed to make use of the opportunity:

  1. Government was not the primary cause of the economic crisis.
  2. The government understands the crisis and knows how to fix it.
  3. Main Street Americans were nothing more than victims of the crisis.
  4. The only way to save the economy is through massive government growth and deficit spending.
  5. The middle class will not pay for the stimulus package. Only the rich will.

In clear and concise prose, the author lays waste to each claim.

Misassigned blame, false assertions, and destructive public policy are the true story of the financial crisis and the story that Obama’s narrative has brilliantly obfuscated. Obama’s objective has been to tell a story about the financial crisis that leverages it into a game-changer for American culture –to transform a culture of entrepreneurship into one of statism and to make the 30% coalition a permanent majority.

The 30% coalition believes in income equality no matter how it is achieved. They believe it makes no difference whether income is the result of   redistribution and government edict or it comes from enterprise and excellence. Brooks calls this an ideology driven by raw materialism.

In contrast, the 70% majority understands that money is only a proxy for personal fulfillment. It emphasizes creativity, optimism, and control in one’s own life and seeks to escape from the heavy hand of the state.

Yet it is the ideology of raw materialism that claims the moral high ground.  The statists say they care about people and accuse the proponents of free enterprise of only caring about money and economic incentives.

For Obama and the leaders of the 30% coalition, money buys happiness, as long as it is distributed fairly….The 70% majority understands that the secret to human flourishing is not money but earned success in life.

Earned success, Brooks explains, is the creation of value in our lives or the lives of others. The American Dream for immigrants is the same as for the native born. It is the opportunity to determine one’s own future.  It is having control over ones life – statism takes away that control.

Brooks exposes the shell game played by the left in their efforts to confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. They say “fairness” when what they really intend is mandated income equality.

Brooks argues:

Fairness should not be a 30% trump card but rather its Achilles’ heel. Equality of income is not fair. It is distinctly unfair. If you work harder than a coworker but are paid the same that is unfair.

Even children understand that. Required to participate in group projects (much favored by the educational establishment – elementary to graduate school) they know that one or two students do all the work while the rest get a grade they didn’t earn. “That’s not fair,” they complain. Children know instinctively that fairness is a system that rewards hard work and excellence. They also know that “self-esteem” is earned not conferred.

According to Gallup, business owners have the highest sense of well-being and job satisfaction of any group although they work longer hours and may earn less than those who work for companies owned by other people.

Surveys also show that poor people on welfare are less happy than poor people making their own way. The conclusion is inescapable:  The free enterprise system advances happiness. A system that encourages dependence on government does not.

Brooks contends that if the 70% majority is to win the culture war, it must be made clear that free enterprise is morally superior to statism and redistributionist policies. It will not be won with money-based arguments.

We must articulate a set of moral principles that set forth our fundamental values and principles and be prepared to defend them against attack. The first, and most important of these, is that the purpose of free enterprise is not materialism but human flourishing. The last chapter elaborates on five others and the rationale for each.  These are the values that animate the majority of Americans and they comprise the arsenal for winning “The Battle.”

Brooks does not believe that the election of Barak Obama repudiates these values. Republicans lost in 2008, he says, because of the recession and because they advanced no principled solutions. Long before 2008, politicians of both parties were using earmarks, entitlements, and regulations to enhance their power. The result strengthened government and weakened free enterprise.

America needs leaders who are committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and defending free enterprise. In The Battle, Brooks redefines the terms of political engagement.


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