I write from time to time about about a variety of issues that are important to me. It may appear to the casual reader that these writings cover subjects that are all over the map, as at first glance I can see why the connectedness between the financial crisis of 2008, a theology of the marketplace, and a vigilant foreign policy are not all directly related. But truth to be told, the singular passion of my ideological interests does tie in all of the various subjects that I from time to time will write about – and that singular passion is exactly what Arthur Brooks is writing about in his new little booklet, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future.
Dr. Brooks is the president of AEI (the American Enterprise Institute), one of the leading conservative free market think tanks in the world. There exists a dangerous tendency to see what groups like AEI do as “political”, and view what family values groups do as “moral”. We live in a day and age where this confusion (and outright error) is allowing our country to be handed over to a sect of radicals whose operating ideology does not resemble any part of the America our founders had envisioned. As Brooks so persuasively argues in this little treatise, the discussion over the role of government, the belief in free men and free markets, the nature of the people’s relationship to their government – these are, above all else – moral issues. In fact, this “battle” is the defining cultural struggle of our day. Brooks could not possibly be more right.
I would have preferred to see the book serve as a sort of stand-alone ideological case for the cause of the “70% majority” (as he puts it) – the vast majority of Americans who do not believe in the need for a ruling class to tell them how to live – the large percentage of every day Americans who believe they should be able to climb as high as they want to climb, or fall as low as they want to fall, without the woeful intervention of the federal government. Brooks uses exhaustive polling data to show that roughly 70% of Americans generally fall on this side of the great debate, but that the 30% minority rules both the media and academia. The vision of the 30% minority is rank collectivism. The demonization of business (both big and small) and the smug condescension towards those who would aspire for more prosperity and more success is the by-product of the 30% minority’s worldview. However, the defining thesis of their worldview is that income inequality represents the largest form of injustice, whereas income equality represents the ultimate justice. A grossly redistributionist tax code should be no surprise to those of us who understand the key tenets of the 30% minority’s worldview. Their policy propositions are consistent with their ideology. The idea that the federal government could be (or should be) an agent of enforcement for these various social outcomes was unheard of in our country before FDR. But after the Great Depression, the crisis that did not “go to waste”, the beginning of the 30%’s crusade had launched. It has been a very effective century for their side.
I say that I wish the book had served as a stand-alone case for the ideology of the 70%, but he did choose to use it as a sort of contemporary policy critique as well, which, while serving its purpose, dates the book and I think is unfortunate. Even by the time the book was published much of its content was outdated (i.e. he wrote the book with the tone that Obama’s sweeping health care bill might be passed; by the time the book had hit shelves it was already signed into law; there is a flood of criticism of the particular stimulus bill of 2009, etc.). Every iota of data Brooks provides to lament Fannie, Freddie, the stimulus, TARP, ObamaCare, etc. is valid and of interest, but I do feel that the book would have been stronger as a sort of timeless treatise on the cause of the 70% majority.
The strongest points of the book, and the reason Brooks has done such critically important work here (World magazine has already recognized the book as its Book of 2010, by the way) are found in these two areas:
(1) The moral nature of the battle that exists
(2) The fundamental materialism that underpins the left’s approach towards creating income equality.
I heard Dr. Brooks speak about the latter at the annual Acton Institute dinner in 2009 and wrote about it here. Brooks concept of “earned success” is indisputably true and of fundamental importance in how we approach the problems in today’s world. Understanding the idea that true happiness comes from “earned success”, and not simply receiving a bigger slice of society’s overall wealth pie via government-coerced redistribution, is not mere economics. This latter point makes his former point all the more compelling. For what could be more immoral than advocating a policy worldview that dooms millions of people to unhappiness by robbing them of their human dignity? The arguments against the coercive and progressive and inefficient portions of our tax code are important (and all valid), but they miss the most important point of all: They fail to do what they set out to do, and make life worse for those they set out to help.
The infatuation of society with the state is today’s true modern idolatry. It is true that America has not arrived at the point where our European friends have, but the 30% minority seems determined to get us there as soon as possible. For Dr. Brooks, this battle can not be won without a refresher course in the moral foundation of freedom. This is the singular passion of my life, and it directly correlates into how I interpret the financial crisis of 2008, how I advocate men and women of faith approaching the marketplace and their careers, and how I comment on the contemporary political scene. I do not dispute that a variety of other political divides exist, but the fundamental divide of today is not one of pro-life vs. pro-choice; it is one that centers around the relationship of a citizenry to the state. The manifestations of this divide have become toxic and captivate the airwaves nightly. Any attempt to win this battle with merely pragmatic propositions are going to fail. The conservative right in this country must reclaim the moral high ground, and in this delightful little book, Dr. Brooks has showed us how.
I am not joking that a 12 or 13-year old should be able to read and digest this book. In fact, I am not joking that you give this book to as many people that age as soon as you can. The outcome of the battle may depend on it.