If Only: A Review of Arthur Brooks' The Battle
By Bryan Caplan
According to Arthur Brooks’ latest book, The Battle, a vocal social democratic minority in U.S. politics keeps foisting its misguided policies on a solid free-market majority:
Whether we look at capitalism, taxes, business, or government, the data show a clear and consistent pattern: 70 percent of Americans support the free enterprise system, and are unsupportive of big government. By contrast, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the adult population opposes free enterprise and prefers government solutions to our problems.
The problem was clear even under Bush, but since the 2008 crisis, the split between the free-market policies Americans want and the socialist policies they get has become a chasm.
The truth is that the American electorate did not repudiate free enterprise or conservative principles in November 2008. Rather, it punished an unprincipled Republican party. American politics had not become too conservative for the American appetite. Rather, American politics had strayed too far from its free enterprise values.
The values that Brooks expresses in The Battle are eerily similar to my own. I really wish this book were right from cover to cover. But I’m afraid that Brooks’ analysis of public opinion is deeply mistaken. While the median American is almost certainly more pro-market than the median European, he’s still a social democrat. And while recent policies are probably a little more statist than the median American prefers, the statist quo is very popular.
Brooks’ whole book revolves around his 70/30 claim: 70% of Americans are pro-market, and just 30% are anti-market. His data work seems OK as far as it goes, but he ignores three key problems.
First, 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. Only 41% of Americans are against or strongly against “control of prices by legislation.” (GSS variable identifier SETPRICE) Only 21.3% are against or strongly against “supporting declining industries to protect jobs.” (GSS variable identifier SAVEJOBS) Just 15.7% disagree or strongly disagree with the view that “America should limit the import of foreign products in order to protect its national economy.” (GSS variable identifier IMPORTS) All things considered, the best you can say about the American public is that it pays lip service to free enterprise.
Second, even lip service to free enterprise is partly an illusion created by binary response options. If Americans have to choose between free markets or socialism, 70% or so prefer free markets. But if you offer them intermediate choices, the picture changes. Brooks mentions that Americans are most supportive of capitalism when you call it “free enterprise”; I’d guess that “private enterprise” is an equally lovable label. But when the GSS presents the statement, “Private enterprise is the best way to solve America’s economic problems,” the breakdown is 16.3% strongly agree, 37.1% agree, 32.4% neither agree nor disagree, 12.5% disagree, and 1.8% strongly disagree. (GSS variable identifier PRIVENT) For a less favorable label like “capitalism” or “free markets,” the median American would almost certainly be neutral. On a balanced question, I’d guess a lip service breakdown more like 35% pro-market, 40% neutral, and 25% anti-market.
Third, even self-styled pro-market Americans are normally only relatively pro-market. What fraction of “pro-market” Americans want to substantially cut – much
less abolish – Social Security and Medicare? They’re the nation’s largest social programs, their moral and market failure rationales are flimsy at best, but almost everyone loves them.
Once you take a more realistic view of American public opinion, there’s not much of a split between the policies voters want and the policies voters get. Even the 2008 bailout looks fairly popular if you include an intermediate response option. I wish it weren’t so, but if the American public wanted free-market policies, they’d have them. The point of free-market philosophy is not to defend public opinion, but to change it.
There’s plenty in The Battle to like. Brooks defends free markets against unfair accusations, points fingers at Republican complicity in the growth (2001-7) and sudden explosion (2008) of government, and rhetorically sidelines social conservatives. If he were a typical American, I’d be overjoyed. Alas, Brooks is all too exceptional.