Interviewing Arthur Brooks On His New Book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise”

Arthur Brooks is the President of the American Enterprise Institute and his new book is called The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise. Late last week, I got together with Arthur Brooks for an interview. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the interview.

You wrote a book on happiness and in the pitch for this book you say, “This book will show you the secret behind true happiness and why only free enterprise supports achieving it.” Tell us what it is; what is the secret to true happiness and how is free enterprise going to support achieving it?

The secret to true happiness comes in two words and those two words are “earned success,” which is a belief that you create value in the lives of other people. It doesn’t come from earning a lot of money necessarily because money’s just one way of measuring earned success. Other people measure it different ways: saving souls, helping kids to read, raising successful children, whatever. That’s the greatest thing about a free society because we can decide what the definition of our success is, but then we get to earn it. And I don’t say we have to earn it, we get to earn it because that’s the key thing.

When people don’t feel that they have earned their success, then they experience something psychologists call learned helplessness, where their rewards are detached from their merits; they become passive and unhappy. The key thing is basically when we’re making the moral case for free enterprise is it’s not about free enterprise just making us richer. That’s great, but that’s not going to get the job done. We’re not going to win this argument against people who say free enterprise is not fair simply by saying, “Yes, but it makes us rich.”

The only way we’re going to win the argument for free enterprise is by saying what’s written on our hearts. And what’s written on our hearts is that the free enterprise system is a system that delights us as a system that allows us to feel like we’ve truly achieved something. It lets us go home at night and say, “I did something through my own hard work.” We’re taking that system away from our kids and grandkids and that’s not an economic issue; that’s a moral issue.

Along those same lines, do you think conservatives spend way too much time on logic and dry arguments instead of appealing to emotion and fairness?

Yes, way too much. I know how all the dry, materialistic arguments go. I’m a PhD economist. I went to graduate school and specialized in dry economic arguments and I understand the importance of the material benefits of a free society. I understand that we need economic growth, we need jobs, and we need to be able to prosper. I understand that completely, but I also understand that we’ve been losing the argument. So when I’ve looked back over the past several decades and have seen some of the carnage that’s happened with flimsy moral arguments the Left has put up against our bulletproof material arguments, I say, “Man, how did they win those arguments?” The answer is they’ve been appealing to morals. We’ve been appealing to material things and we’ve got to stop that because we’ve got the real moral arguments.

Number one, as we just talked about, is earned success. Number two is true fairness. Every time Obama talks about fairness, he’s talking about spreading the wealth around and that’s not true fairness. True fairness means rewarding merit and creating opportunity and only the free enterprise system can do that.

….And the last element of the moral case for free enterprise is helping the vulnerable. We don’t talk enough about the fact that most of us feel ethically that we’re commanded to help the less fortunate. Privately those of us on the Right talk constantly about how we can help the poor. But then we get out in public and we talk about lowering taxes and things like that. The reason we want to lower taxes is because we want to create an environment where people can prosper, especially those who haven’t prospered yet.

Did you grow up poor?

No, I grew up middle-class. Probably lower-middle class for most of my childhood, I guess I’d say.

Yes, me too. I grew up lower-middle class or poor, depending on how you want to define it. And the reason I’m not still living under those conditions — which were fine. I mean I had loving parents and I had a great childhood, but the reason I’ve been able to better myself and give my kids a better future is because of the free enterprise system. If we want to hold people down and learn helplessness and make sure they never really get ahead, statism, social democracy — that’s the way to go. If we really wanted to hurt our nation and make sure people can’t earn their success, we’re doing exactly the right thing. We’re not going to win the arguments and turn this thing around until we actually say, “Look guys, it’s wrong doing what we’re doing. It’s the wrong thing for our nation morally.”

Well now, that’s a difficult thing to do. Thomas Sowell once said, “There are few talents, more richly rewarded with both wealth and power in countries around the world, then the ability to convince backward people that their problems are caused by other people who are more advanced.” You see that in our country too. That’s the whole point of the Occupy Movement, it’s the strategy of Barack Obama’s campaign, it’s what he’s got it centered around now….

Oh he does.

I think that’s the entire center of his campaign. It’s that Mitt Romney’s a rich, evil plutocrat who wants to steal all your money and give it to rich people.

Barack Obama’s whole argument is that inequality isn’t fair. The reason that certain people are hurting is because rich people are walking off with the dough. That’s not just demonstrably false, it’s morally incorrect and the way to combat it is not by running away from the concept of fairness. It’s by running towards the concept of fairness. Mitt Romney can win that argument by saying,
“You know what Mr. President? The problem is you’re defining fairness wrong. For you, fairness is spreading the wealth. For me, fairness is creating an opportunity society. For me, fairness is rewarding merit and not taking something away from people who have earned it. And I don’t care if they’re rich, poor, middle-class, I want to lift more people up. That’s a fair society. The unfairest thing that we can do is to build up a mountain of debt and deficits that our kids have to pay back. We’re stealing from them. That’s unfair. Creating government jobs that pay better then the private sector, that’s unfair. Bailing out large corporations with crony capitalists that have undue access to lobbyists and lawyers, that’s unfair. This is the most unfair administration in my memory.”

That’s what Mitt Romney needs to say because he has the moral high ground. On the Left their heads will explode if we’re the ones who are arguing for fairness.

I think it’s a great idea. Now if you were talking to a liberal, if you were just having a conversation, you’re going back and forth, how would you explain to him that what the Left is doing is immoral, it’s hurting people. How would you explain that too them?

Well, the first thing I’d do…. in fact when I talk to somebody who’s part of the Occupy Movement is, I say,

“What I admire about you guys is that what you’re fighting is corporate cronyism. And you know what’s wrong with us on the right, is we don’t fight against corporate cronyism enough. We give those guys a pass. We’re really exercised about statism, but there’s another threat to our liberties which is corporate cronyism. But what you guys in the Occupy Movement don’t understand is that it’s not free enterprise that creates corporate cronyism. It’s the lack of free enterprise that creates corporate cronyism. So I want to stamp it out; I want everybody to have a fair shake. I want a level playing field; I want the guy who owns a hardware store to have just as much access to the government as General Electric. That’s a better America — and the only way we’re going to get that is with true competition. That actually will lift people up and give everybody a fair break.”

Last question, Arthur. Let’s say you’re talking to a single, female voter. Maybe she’s got a kid, she’s getting welfare, she’s getting food stamps…in her mind, this is fair, this is taking care of her. What do you say to her? What’s the pitch that we’re more moral, that we can provide a better life?

The worst thing that could happen to somebody who’s down and out is cratering our economy and sending us into a Greek Style debt crisis. You know who’s going to be left holding the bag if Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security go broke? It’s not guys like you and me; we don’t even need Social Security. That’s going to pay our green fees, man, while it’s going to hurt the poor. It’s going to hurt people who are truly…

Just for the record, it’s not going to pay my green fees. I could use Social Security, but…

…yes, probably me too. But, you and I are not going to go begging on the street without it. I mean we are putting some away, right?


So this is the key; we need a social safety net. Conservatives can legitimately say, “Look we want a social safety net.” Reagan said that we should have a social safety net. He said that’s a goal of government, but that’s not the same thing as our current Social Security system in which middle class people who are retired today, are going to take out three times as much as they’ve put in. Basically I’d say to the woman who’s not making ends meet and who’s on food stamps, I’d say, “I want to make sure that this system is safe and reliable. I want to help you get on your feet and I want to make sure that if your kids are down and out, that this system hasn’t gone broke because we’re blowing money on corporate cronies, middle class people who are taking stuff they didn’t put into it, and statists who are just growing the government and creating government jobs.”

Arthur Brooks, that was fantastic. Thank you.

Beautiful. I’m a fan and I really appreciate the work that you’re doing.

Once again, Arthur Brooks’ new book is called, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise.

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