The Real Culture War

American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks talks about the 70 percent of Americans who support free enterprise and why they're underrepresented in Washington.


The United States faces a new culture war, argues American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks, one that pits big government against free enterprise rather than red states against blue. In his new book, The Battle (Basic Books), Brooks says about 70 percent of Americans "don't see free enterprise as just an economic matter." Rather, "they see it as kind of a lifestyle issue," as "the bedrock of American culture." The other 30 percent, he contends, is made up of a "socialist, redistributionist" minority that has outsized influence due to its hold over media, universities, and other key institutions.

AEI, one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, is a conservative outfit founded in the 1940s and known especially for its influence on George W. Bush's foreign policy. Brooks joined it as president in 2009. Prior to that, the 46-year-old taught business and government policy at Syracuse University. His other books include Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (2006) and Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—And How We Can Get More of

It (2008).

Brooks' route into academia and think-tank leadership was anything but direct. He started as a professional musician, barnstorming around the country with a chamber ensemble and eventually landing a gig playing French horn for the Barcelona city orchestra. After earning a B.A. from the pioneering distance-learning institution Thomas Edison College and a master's degree from Florida Atlantic University, he received his Ph.D. from the RAND Corporation, where he began his analysis of the intersection of culture, economics, and politics. A Seattle native, Brooks still swears by Bach and Anton Bruckner even as he wades deeper into D.C.'s political and ideological battles.

Last summer Brooks sat down with Editor Nick Gillespie to discuss the best way for fans of free enterprise to "stop losing arguments" and start expanding freedom. This is an edited transcript of an hour-long conversation that can be viewed in full at

reason: What is the 70/30 nation?

Arthur Brooks: It's the split between the people who like the free enterprise system culturally and the people who reject the free enterprise system culturally. Most Americans don't see free enterprise as just an economic matter. They see it as a lifestyle issue, as the bedrock of American culture. You go out there and ask people, "Do you believe that free markets are the best way to organize our economy, despite severe ups and downs?" Seven in 10 say yes. About 20 percent say no, and 10 percent evidently don't understand the question.

reason: So who are the leaders of the 30 percenters in the U.S.?

Brooks: They're people in the idea business, basically. They're people who are above average in income, above average in education, in industries like law, journalism, entertainment, public policy. They're writers, they're artists, they're opinion leaders. Who are, generally speaking, doing pretty well economically.

reason: The Obama administration is one of the villains of your book. Is Obama actually against the free enterprise system? He's called himself a redistributionist, at least in the famous clip with Joe the Plumber, but is he actually for getting rid of private property?

Brooks: No. Is he a full-blown, card-carrying socialist? Of course not. It's nonsense for us to be too hyperbolic about this stuff.

But let's keep in mind the way social democracy works. Virtually everybody in the United States who's a free marketeer believes that markets fail occasionally and we actually need rule of law and a pretty smart government such that the free enterprise system can flourish. It's even legitimate—according to F.A. Hayek, if you look back at The Road to Serfdom—to provide a basic standard of living for folks.

The problem is when we get into two other objectives. One is to say it's not fair for som

e people to earn so much more than others. To level for the sake of leveling. And number two is to take risk out of people's lives. Those are the two impulses of social democrats.

When you look at the whole idea of increasing marginal tax rates on families earning $250,000 and above, which is a pretty small percentage of Americans, people in the Obama administration have been asked time and again, "Why do you want to do that?" And Mr. Obama himself answered, "Because we need a sense of fairness and balance in our tax code." That's a redistributionist impulse. That's the idea that it's as important to bring the top down as it is to bring the bottom up, because we want a fairer society.

reason: Isn't it more that they believe that the rich can pay more? They're not going to bring Steven Spielberg down to our level or below. It's just that he can kick in extra.

Brooks: Well, yeah. The rich can pay more, and they do pay more—they pay a lot more. The question is how much more do you want to squeeze out of them? As we know, there are tremendously diminishing returns. The rich tend to do really diabolical things like not creating businesses and not creating new jobs when you lower the incentives for them to do that.

reason: Your book makes a clear distinction that what's going on under Obama is particularly bad. But it's also true that virtually all of your arguments about the expansion of government spending and influence could be applied with equal force to President Bush, who gave the talk at AEI's annual dinner in 2003. As you note, it was Bush, with the help of the GOP Congress, who created and rammed through TARP, bailed out auto companies, regulated at a higher rate than Clinton. He gave us Sarbanes-Oxley, increased overall government expenditures by about 100 percent, oversaw the prescription drug benefit in Medicare. You can go on and on.

Why shouldn't we be talking about the 21st century as an era of the growth of big government, as opposed to talking about it in terms of our 20th- or 19th-century models of right and left? If we look at the last decade, it's statism any way you cut it.

Brooks: I completely agree with that. I say at the beginning of this book that we're fighting a culture war in this country. This is not a culture war over God, guns, gays, and abortions; that's something from the 1990s. It's also not a culture war between Democrats and Republicans. This is a culture war between big government and us. The government doesn't exist to not do stuff. It's growing, and it's growing quickly, and there's a really alarming tendency for people with the reins of power to go native and use these tools to do more. That's why we have to remember that our culture is fundamentally centered on free enterprise. When we start to forget that, then we start to acquiesce to all of the policies that we don't like.

reason: Free enterprise is the economic application of a classical liberal project: the idea that individuals and the groups they form cooperatively are really the source of meaning and significance in life.

Brooks: Correct. I mean, that's what the whole idea of the pursuit of happiness in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, that we are autonomous individuals, that we should be able to pursue our happiness as we define it. It's a profoundly moral libertarian principle.

reason: Why didn't you write The Battle in 2006 or in 2008?

Brooks: That's when I started it. The unease that Americans were feeling starting in 2006, when it was clear that our policy makers might say something about loving the free enterprise system, but were clearly going down a road that does not respect it.

reason: Who are the Republican malefactors, besides Bush, who either destroyed or are de

stroying free enterprise, or using it to cover an agenda that just gives them more power?

Brooks: There's been a problem in general with the system in Washington, where you self-select politicians and you reward politicians with leadership in the houses of Congress who are really good at appropriating resources for things that reward very narrow interests. People who can bring home bailouts, people who are very effective at social engineering, people who are especially good at pork-barrel spending.

Now, there are really courageous men and women on the Hill.

reason: Can we name them?

Brooks: We probably shouldn't.

reason: Why shouldn't we?

Brooks: What I want to get behind is principles that can be applied to people of either political party. As opposed to, you know, naming a list of Republicans I like or dislike.

reason: But aren't they the problem? Because they're the ones who are using the rhetoric of free enterprise to undermine the system. Who are the players on the scene from either party who are actually advancing a free enterprise agenda in a way that seems credible and meaningful?

Brooks: Paul Ryan is a congressman from Wisconsin who completely shares the values that the Founders had about the expression of freedom. And he believes this at the cultural level, not just because it's kind of convenient for getting elected in his district.

reason: Although he did vote for TARP and the auto bailout.

Brooks: He repudiates the auto bailout at this point.

reason: Your book has a foreword from Newt Gingrich. You have blurbs on the galleys from Dick Cheney, from Bill Bennett. How do you convince people, then, that this isn't just the way by which the Republican Party gets back into power and then does exactly what it did for the first six years of the 21st century? What do you say to libertarians whose free enterprise bona fides are absolutely not in question, who have been sickened over what they saw of a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and even possibly a Republican Supreme Court?

Brooks: The way to do it is to remember why free enterprise matters and to make that particular argument. And that argument cuts across political party, it cuts across the way that we define our ideology, and it goes straight to exactly why we care about freedom in the first place. And the answer to that is basically that the argument that income redistribution and income equality leads to happiness is profoundly wrong. Not as a philosophical matter, but as an empirical matter, based on 30 years of data from psychologists on human happiness.

One of the things that we find is that what motivates most Americans in their flourishing, what they say gives them the greatest happiness outside of the private institutions of faith and family and such, is this concept of earned success. By earned success, I mean feeling that you are creating value in your life or the life of other people. It might be measured in dollars, or it might be measured in souls saved, or the success of your children, or people who feel more free in former dictatorships, or whatever that happens to be. But earned success is really the coin of the realm for most people. So the key is, how do you get more of it? And the answer is not income redistribution. Income redistribution spreads money around. Earned success brings flourishing. That's a moral imperative of the free enterprise system.

reason: Gingrich is currently waging a war on what he calls Obama's secular socialist machine. Isn't free enterprise ultimately a secular pluralist project, where the idea of the state is not to create certain outcomes but to create a framework of pluralism and tolerance where many different types of people can pursue whatever experiments in living they prefer? Is there a clash on the right between religious people and free enterprise people?

Brooks: It's not irreconcilable at all. The United States is a pretty religious country. And one of the reasons is because we're a pluralist, tolerant place that doesn't establish religion constitutionally. One of the things that we know is that when you have a monopoly in telecoms, you get lousy, expensive telecom service. Well, when you have a monopoly in religion, you get lousy, expensive religious service. The free market for souls is one of the big reasons that the United States is such a religious country.

reason: Gingrich won't separate the two. He argues that to believe in free enterprise you have to be Christian.

Brooks: Newt doesn't say to believe in free enterprise you have to be a Christian. What he understands is that there's a natural complementarity between free enterprise and people who have a very strong moral system, be it a religion, secular ethics, or whatever it happens to be.

reason: But it's not secular ethics. Because he's hostile toward secularism.

Brooks: He's not hostile toward people that live true to a moral system, a moral code that creates virtue. You know, we can argue until the cows come home about virtue, but bad moral values corrupt capitalism. So we need a society that has common values. And if the vehicle for that happens to be standard religious faith, that's great. We actually tolerate each other. And we should actually embrace the fact that different people get to these values in different ways.

reason: Talk a little bit about your academic background. What was driving you?

Brooks: I happened across this book about welfare reform by Charles Murray, Losing Ground, and another one he had written called The Bell Curve. It was kind of forbidden at the time to read this right-wing literature. Of course I read it because I had authority problems. And these books just rocked my world. I actually went back to graduate school because I started reading the work of AEI scholars, never knowing that this is where the path would lead.

reason: Losing Ground argues that what matters is not the individuals in a system but rather the system, so that smart people and dumb people will follow the incentives the same way. And The Bell Curve actually seems to be making the opposite point, which is that, you know, you can't help people very much. So where does that leave you? Are you a Charles Murray Losing Ground person or a Charles Murray Bell Curve person? 

Brooks: It's both. If we had Charles here, he would say, "No, no, no, there's a lot more connective tissue be-tween those two things." The Bell Curve says there's a nontrivial part of our cognitive life that is wired. But something like half isn't, and the culture really matters a lot. And in fact, when we have a class system, a ruthless class system that only sorts on the things that are wired, we get all sorts of terrible outcomes. We need to be masters of ourselves and masters in our public policy to make sure that we reward individuals in their individual richness, which is a terrifically libertarian point of view.

reason: How do you define yourself politically?

Brooks: I'm a political independent. My three fundamental values are expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and defending entrepreneurship.

reason: Should gays be allowed to marry?

Brooks: I think that we should support, you know, free contracts between people as a matter of basic civil rights and the rule of law.

reason: So gays should be allowed to freely enter into contracts. Should heterosexuals be allowed to get benefits from the state that are different than what a gay contract would be?

Brooks: I don't know the answer to that. If the free enterprise system is abridged, we won't even get to those conversations, because the answers will be decided for us by an omnipotent state, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid. I actually want to have that argument, but we have to fight this first one first.

reason: How does immigration fit into your worldview? At various points you talk about how free trade is good. Most people will say that it's great to have free goods coming across the Mexican border, but people not so much.

Brooks: I think that every country has a right to decide how it wants to defend its borders, obviously. But my own personal view is that we're a country based on immigration. We're a country based on the idea of cross-fertilizing our population with people who are entrepreneurial enough to want to come here. And we risk that at our great national peril. There's actually a growing body of research that says that Americans are genetically different from people in other parts of the world because you put your capital at risk most radically when you pick up and move. You put your intellectual, social, religious, and financial capital at risk when you go someplace where you don't know anybody, you don't have a job, you don't speak the language. This is a really big deal. And if we're self-selecting something that is a mutation in other countries and making it the norm in our country, are you going to cut that off? This is really the essence of the free enterprise spirit, in my view. It's not just a question of fairness; it's a question of freedom. I think it's actually our soul.

reason: AEI touts itself as a powerful force in pushing for the invasion of Iraq. The website says, "AEI is taking a leading role in defining the threat that Saddam poses and outlining how Iraq should be reconstructed once he's removed." It's got a list of articles. Do you think the invasion of Iraq was necessary? And how would you fit that into a larger vision of American military power?

Brooks: One of the core competencies of the state is public goods. And a standing army and muscular defense and power projected around the world, if that's your cup of tea, can absolutely be apprehended within the context of the public good.

reason: So was Iraq a good idea, a bad idea? Was it a good idea poorly executed, a good idea well executed, a bad idea well executed?

Brooks: Good idea, poorly executed ultimately. There was a course correction that led to far higher levels of success in Iraq.

Freedom, as understood in the United States, is, I feel, AEI's gift to America and America's gift to the world. And you share that gift to the world in different ways. Now some people would say never, never, never with military power. And other people would say that when you have allies like Israel and South Korea and Taiwan, there are cases in which there are threats to that. Threats to our allies. And indeed threats to free people around the world that have to be met.

reason: Can you think of an American military intervention that was not justified?

Brooks: My colleagues at AEI disagree violently about how Bosnia was executed, how Somalia was executed, how even Panama and Grenada were executed. Were they the right things to do? Once the die was cast.

reason: You talk toward the end of the book about how we should be interested in our principles, not power. That always sounds good, and you can always convince the politicians right up to the moment they take office. How do you hold them accountable?

Brooks: That starts with a couple of different things. One is ideas—making free enterprise ideas realistic policy prescriptions that actually can win because Americans like them a lot. Once politicians have policies that they can grab onto, they're more likely to embrace them. Once they've lashed themselves to the mast, they're more likely to do the right thing. But that starts with us in the intellectual infrastructure to come up with ideas that can win.

The second thing is, of course, reminding Americans that principles matter more than political power, which they manifestly agree with. And reminding Americans that as they compromise, one little bit, one little policy at a time, they get away from the principles that they actually hold most dear. When Americans understand that, they tend to hold politicians accountable.

reason: You've written a lot about optimism in your work, and we can end on this note. According to Wikipedia, you have three kids and you may have been involved in the Kennedy assassination.…

Brooks: Wikipedia said three. That could be anywhere between one and 30.

reason: That's right, or none at all. But do you think they will have a better life than you?

Brooks: I believe that my children have the opportunity based on our culture and their behavior to have a better life than I do. I think part of it is up to me, but a large part is up to them. Most people do advance economically. Some people do advance socially. And given the promises of our system, the miracle of our system, they actually have a fighting chance to make it a reality.