The Road to Freedom: Bumps and All
By Bryan Caplan
Reading Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom is eerily like having a conversation with myself. He never calls himself a libertarian, and certainly never mentions Ayn Rand or Thomas Reid. But the Hollywood pitch version of Brooks’ book is “Rand corrected by Reid” – and if you know my autobiography, that’s my position in a nutshell. I’m tempted to say that Arthur Brooks is my imaginary Conservative Missionary, but he’s actually better. Brooks:
Materialistic arguments for free enterprise have been tried again and again. They have failed to stem the tide of big government.
There’s only one kind of argument that will shake people awake: a moral one. Free enterprise advocates need to build the moral case to remind Americans why the future of the nation is worth more to each of us than a few short-term government benefits. To get off the path of social democracy or long-term austerity all of us who love freedom must be able to express what is written on our hearts about what our Founders struggled to give us, what the culture of free enterprise has brought to our lives, and about the opportunity society we want to leave our children.
Average Americans are thus left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral left versus the materialistic right. The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today. But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don’t understand basic moral principles.
What precisely is Brooks’ “moral case” for free enterprise? “The moral legitimacy of free enterprise depends largely on how the system enables people to flourish, whether the system is fair, and how the system treats the least fortunate in society.” He then has chapters on each point.
On “flourishing,” Brooks summarizes and updates his earlier Gross National Happiness. In the First World, income has little effect on happiness. But what Brooks calls “earned success” matters a great deal. Being unemployed makes people miserable even when they have plenty to eat, a roof over their heads, and high-speed Internet.
This doesn’t mean, Brooks hastens to add, that redistribution is harmless:
While it is earned success that really matters, people are nevertheless wired to “keep score.”…
Just for fun, find a Marxist college professor – who scoffs at the idea that people work less if they lose the incentive of money – how he would feel if his name were not put on any of the academic articles he published. Instead, the articles would be published under the name of another academic who needed the recognition more than he did. After all, he would still have the satisfaction of having written the articles. Why shouldn’t that be enough? His completely reasonable response would be that he earned the right to have his name on those articles, and denying him that measure of earned success is viciously unfair. Exactly.
Think about your own life and work – the jobs you’ve enjoyed and the jobs you haven’t. Have you ever quit a job because, no matter how hard you worked and how clever you were, your material rewards were stalled? Consider this: 70 percent of people who say their chances for promotion are good are “very satisfied” with their jobs, versus just 42 percent who say their chances of promotion are not good. To be happy, people need clear paths to success and the ability to measure and keep rewards.
This whole discussion resonates with me. But soon afterwards Brooks makes what I consider a devastating concession:
Am I arguing that Americans are happier than Europeans and that Europeans could be as happy as Americans are, if only they embraced our system? Actually, I’m not… [I]t’s clear that Europeans think they’re pretty happy.
His response is just to say that Americans and Europeans are different:
For most Americans, work in a free enterprise system that matches our skills and talents is essential to happiness, so the European system would be wrong for us.
This is quite unconvincing. Yes, Americans and Europeans are different now. But the social democrat could easily point to Europe and say, “They learned to enjoy cradle-to-grave security, and so can we. Let’s start today.” We already know that retirement, unlike unemployment, has little effect on happiness. What’s the difference? Shame. In our society, retirees don’t feel like failures, and the rest of us don’t treat them like failures.
The lesson is that defenders of free enterprise have to put less weight on happiness. Sure, happiness is one good thing. But so is achievement – doing something productive with your life. And on this score, free enterprise looks a lot better than welfare states that subsidize people who skate through life without even trying to make something of themselves.
Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself. When someone achieves something – whether writing an article or building a business – they deserve to keep the product. It matters little whether keeping the product makes the achiever happy. The point is that achiever earned what he has, and other people – including government – ought to respect his rights. From here, you’re close to the truism that taxation is theft – and the moral case for free enterprise looks solid indeed.
Brooks’ chapters on fairness and poverty are harder to argue with. Like the man says, even diluted free enterprise is surprisingly meritocratic and a near-panacea for absolute poverty.
The main flaw is that Brooks is soft on the most unfair, most impoverishing government policy of all: immigration restrictions. To his credit, he stands up not just for high-skilled immigrants, but immigrants in general:
Every student with a clean legal record who obtains a degree from an American university should automatically have the right to become a permanent resident. People who worry that those students will create unemployment for Americans are misguided. Skilled and talented immigrants create jobs, opportunity, and growth; they do not take them away.
One moral point on this last issue is worth making. We shouldn’t forget that for almost all of us, immigration is our family story. If you are glad to be an American, thank the immigrants who came to the U.S. to earn their success.
Here here. But Brooks leaves so much left unsaid. Don’t the not-so-skilled and not-so-talented people of the world have rights too? Then we cannot in good conscience forbid them to “earn their success” by seeking employment here.
If advocates of free enterprise want to assume the moral high ground, immigration isn’t just one important issue. It is the most important issue. Social democracy isn’t about taking from the rich and giving from the poor. It’s about robbing absolutely poor foreigners of basic freedom of contract in order to slightly raise the incomes of relatively poor natives. Genuine free enterprise wouldn’t just massively increase output; it would distribute that output more equally and more meritocratically. If we want to travel on the road to freedom, Mr. Brooks, we must start by tearing down our own walls.