Why do conservatives defend the banner of free enterprise so fiercely? Whether you're a liberal looking for insight into the opposition or a conservative seeking inspiration, Arthur Brooks's piece in the National Review is likely to appeal. Though it's no surprise that the president of the American Enterprise Institute should be defending the free market, Brooks's mode of argument is starkly different from some of his fellow conservatives'. Brooks's case does not, for example, evoke fear of imminent government takeover. Nor does he shy from the fact that free enterprise involves deep inequalities. Rather, he pitches his tent squarely in the "pursuit of happiness" camp, imploring supporters to join him in rejecting economics jargon and moving back to ideals. In short, he wants to make the "moral" case for the free market. Here's how:
WHAT PROGRESSIVES SAY ABOUT 'FREE MARKETEERS'
If you're a free marketeer, you've faced this charge a thousand times: You are a materialist. Meanwhile, your progressive interlocutors are interested in the higher-order things in life--such as fairness, compassion, and equality. Your vision for America might be wealthier, but theirs is happier ... Their reasoning is clear. When people pursue "the usual brass rings" in the free market, there are winners, and there are losers ... These differences may reflect merit and they may not. But one thing is for sure: Income inequality will result.
WHY HE'S NOT DISPUTING THE PERSISTENCE OR IMPORTANCE OF INEQUALITY
It is factually incorrect to argue that income inequality has not risen in America--it has ... Between 1970 and 2005, the Gini coefficient in America increased by more than 20 percent, from 0.39 to 0.47.
As many progressives see it, this is a major problem, because inequality makes people unhappy. This argument has to be taken seriously, because, at first blush, the data appear to support it: Poorer people in almost every community tend to be unhappier than richer people.
WHY EQUALITY ISN'T THE ROUTE TO HAPPINESS
A careful reading of the data demonstrates a crucially important truth, and one we overlook to our great peril: Inequality is not what makes people unhappy.
To understand this, we need to understand the concept of earned success. Earned success means the ability to create value through effort--not by winning the lottery, not by inheriting a fortune, and not by picking up a welfare check ... Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or the lives of others ... People who feel they have earned their success are much happier than people who feel they have not.
WHY IT'S NOT ABOUT MONEY, EITHER
[M]oney is merely the symbol of earned success, important not primarily for what it can buy (although that’s nice, too) but for what it says about how we are contributing, and the kind of difference we are making. That's why rich entrepreneurs continue to work so hard.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO FIGHT BIG GOVERNMENT
People cherish free enterprise so much more than government because they know intuitively that it allows them to earn their success, and in turn to achieve the greatest levels of happiness ... Free enterprise emphasizes creativity, meaning, optimism, and control of one's own life and seeks to escape from under the heavy hand of the state. ... In short, free enterprise is an act of self-expression ...
To win the new culture war, the sizable majority in favor of free enterprise must claim the moral high ground. We must show that while we often use the language of commerce and business, what we really believe is that the purpose of free enterprise is the pursuit of happiness.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.