Arthur Brooks and the New Culture War

I found a lot to like in the new book by Arthur Brooks, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future, but also a lot I did not like. His column for the Washington Post on "America's new culture war" gives you the basic idea.

This is not the culture war of the 1990s. It is not a fight over guns, gays or abortion. Those old battles have been eclipsed by a new struggle between two competing visions of the country's future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise - limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.

On the essential virtues of limited government, reliance on entrepreneurship, and rewards determined by market forces, I am with him. These are vital principles, too much neglected. But his framing of the broader issue is excessively Manichean. Those competing visions of private enterprise and statism are not irreconcilable, as Brooks insists. They have in fact been reconciled. The result is the mixed economy, which is what we all have. It is not a question of preferring one pure model or the other, but of choosing a point on a continuous scale. To put it another way, the US is not nearly as exceptional as Brooks says.

His account of what is at stake reminded me that I rebuked George Will a little while ago for saying Obama was putting the Founders' vision of limited government at risk. Please. The constitution survives as a legal text, which is a kind of miracle, I grant you, and a tribute to its amazing flexibility. But its flexibility is the point. The Founders' intent, so far as the limits of federal power are concerned, has been wholly subverted: it had to be, because the political consensus that supports the constitution has changed out of recognition too.

Progressives and conservatives alike call the United States a "free-market economy": both sides have an interest in perpetuating this delusion. The idea is ridiculous - as ridiculous as calling Europe's economies "socialist". True, the blend of government and private enterprise is a bit different between the US and the European average, but the models (insofar as it makes sense to talk of a European model) are neighbors not polar opposites.

All this was true, obviously, long before 2009. Obama, I agree, does want to narrow the gap a bit more - but it just was not that wide to begin with. Public spending is lower in the US, but not vastly lower once you remember to add state and local spending to federal outlays; the US healthcare anomaly accounts for a lot of the remaining difference.

In most respects (labor protections are the main exception) the US regulatory state is at least as comprehensive and intrusive as those in Europe. As for the constant tyranny of petty bureaucracy, let me say as somebody who has lived in Britain and now in the US that it seems even worse here. One's interaction with officials of one sort or another is endless. Admittedly, I am an immigrant living in DC, which demands additional oversight. Who knows what I might get up to? Still, these days, I wince every time I hear, "It's a free country." No, it isn't.

Brooks also stresses the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans, and here I think he is right. There is a gap, and it strikes me as pretty wide. America's political culture has not yet surrendered to the inevitability of big government. It keeps pushing back. Measures that would be uncontroversial in Europe - such as universal health care - cause a great fight. But even here Brooks overstates the case, as Bryan Caplan argues.

While the median American is almost certainly more pro-market than the median European, he's still a social democrat... Americans only seem staunchly pro-market at the most abstract and symbolic level. On most specific policy issues, the pattern reverses. Americans favor as much or more government spending on almost everything.

Well, that is partly because opinion polls ask such dumb questions. But Caplan is surely right. Outcomes in a country where politics is as sensitive to popular opinion as in the US cannot depart too far or for very long from where voters wish to be.

You could argue, I suppose, that Obama is currently testing that very proposition. Even on that view, though, he is politically ambitious, rather than a revolutionary warrior intent on destroying the American way.