The Road To Freedom
How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise
By Arthur C. Brooks
In The Road to Freedom, Arthur Brooks expands upon his earlier book, The Battle, in which he wrote that the outcome of The Battle between free enterprise and big government would determine America’s future. To win, he asserted, free enterprise warriors must make the case that their side is morally superior to statism and redistributionist policies. Money-based arguments, although factually correct, do not win hearts.
The dogged reliance on materialistic arguments is a gift to statists. It allows them to paint free enterprise as selfish and motivated only by money. Those who would expand the government have successfully appropriated the language of morality for their own political ends; redistributionist policies, they have claimed to great effect, are fairer, kinder, and more virtuous.
The choice for Americans has been framed as ‘the moral left versus the materialistic right.”
In truth, the opposite is true. The moral case for free enterprise is that it helps individuals and the nation to thrive. Conversely, as Thomas Jefferson wrote over two hundred years ago, “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”
Having already embarked upon what Friedrich Hayek called “The Road to Serfdom,” Brooks provides a guide for getting off that road and on to The Road to Freedom. He warns that the 2012 election, important though it is, cannot undo nearly a century of bad policies inaugurated by Woodrow Wilson and augmented, most notably, by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. But as Brooks points out, there is plenty of blame to go around. Since the beginning of the twentieth century “no president (except perhaps Calvin Coolidge “ is faultless regarding the explosion of government activity. Although some attempted to hold the line, none reversed direction. “In general, the twentieth century was the bipartisan century of big government.”
Americans today are experiencing a low-grade, virtual servitude to an ever-expanding, unaccountable government that, starved for tax revenues, has appropriated for itself funds that entrepreneurs could have used to grow the economy, has created a protected class of government workers and crony corporations that play by a different set of rules than the rest of America, and has consequently left the nation in hock for generations to come.
The present economic dislocations are the culmination of repeated encroachments on the free enterprise system. Brooks says there is a way back, but only if more Americans view the battle between free enterprise and statism in moral terms and are able to articulate how free enterprise contributes to our lives, and why it is important to preserve it.
Unless we actively choose free enterprise and make the tough choices to limit the government, we will slip down the road toward European-style social democracy.
He points out the significance of the fact that the Founders did not promise happiness. Rather, they held as self-evident that all men are created equal, that their Creator endowed them with certain unalienable rights, and they placed the pursuit of happiness third after life and liberty.
The Founders knew that the role of a moral government is to create the conditions of liberty and opportunity so that each of us can define success as we see fit and then work with all our might to attain it. Their visionary insight was that allowing us to earn our success is precisely what gives each of us the best chance at achieving real happiness.
Brooks makes the moral case for free enterprise and applies it to leading policy issues. Along the way he cites a plethora of data in support of the Founders’ vision. He contrasts the happiness produced by earned success to a system of learned helplessness in which rewards and punishments are unconnected to merit and in which people give up trying to succeed.
If people believe economic outcomes are a product of luck, birth, connections, or corruption, they will demand more and more forced wealth redistribution. This rewards political power and connections, as citizens, corporations, and interest groups lobby for favors, not excellence in the marketplace.
He cites arbitrary regulations, excessive taxation, crony capitalism and the gap between public and private sector wages and benefits as disincentives to earned success. Examples of learned helpless include bank bailouts and public policies that protect people from the consequences of their actions and decisions. “Earned success requires sacrifice. And a system that dedicates itself to expunging the challenge and risk from people’s lives is immoral.”
He provides two warring definitions of fairness in American economic life today, which exemplify the difference between free enterprise and statism.
The question is on which definition should public policies be based. President Obama, Nancy Pelosi among others, have chosen Definition One. Obama wants tax increases to get “more fairness in the tax code.” Pelosi believes it is wrong that some people are wealthy and others aren’t. “It’s all about fairness in our country,” she said.
But if America is an opportunity society, than inequality is not unfair. As Brooks points out, it is the opportunities in a society that allow people who work hard and prosper that has drawn immigrants to this country since its inception.
“If we reject the idea of opportunity and meritocratic fairness, we will get a system in which outcomes really are just based on luck and political power.” A system in which billions of tax dollars are given to companies favored by those in power; a system in which unions reap the benefits of government bailouts but stockholders are uncompensated; a system in which laws are selectively enforced so that businessmen who disagree with the political party in power have their inventory confiscated and their plants shut down, without any charges being filed.
Brooks does not dispute the need for a safety net for the weakest members of society. What he does dispute is the expansion of the welfare state to increase material equality and, not incidentally, garner votes. William Voegeli’s observations in Never Enough are germane to Brooks’ thesis.
The operation of entitlement programs leaves the country financially overextended, while the rhetoric and rationale for those programs leave it politically overextended. They proffer new “rights,” goad people to demand and expand those rights aggressively, and disdain truth-in-advertising about the nature and scope of the new debts and obligations those rights will engender. The moral and social capital required by the experiment in self-government is the cultivation, against the grain of a democratic age, of the virtues of forbearance, resolve, sacrifice, and restraint…
A moral system requires fairness. A fair system in an opportunity society rewards merit. In contrast, an unfair system redistributes resources simply to derive greater income equality. This is a world in which, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, ‘all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.’…
True fairness makes free enterprise not just an economic alternative. It makes it a moral imperative.
The Road to Freedom should be required reading for high school and college students, and belongs on the top of everyone’s ‘must read’ list.