I went to a Cato annual picnic yesterday. Several of my Cato friends were not there. Brink Lindsey, obviously.* But there happened to be some no-shows among folks who I know that are still there. You know who you are and what your excuses were.

*The story that I got was that Lindsey received a generous offer from Kauffman that Cato was unable/unwilling to match. Of course, one never knows what took place that preceded the receipt of the offer.

So I ended up talking with Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute (I teased him about coming to “check out the competition.”) It was not on the record, but I don’t think he gave away any secrets, so I’ll try to offer my impressions below the fold.I told Brooks that when I think of the AEI brand, the word that comes to mind is “stodgy.” They are known as the conservative counterpart to Brookings, employing respectable academics and supplying policy wonks when the Repubilcans are in power and providing a home for conservative wonks when Republicans are out of power.

While not rejecting that role for the AEI, Brooks gave the sense that he would like to shift its focus toward communicating with a younger, slightly broader audience. He wants the AEI to provide young leaders with the arguments that can be used to solidify and articulate their commitment to free enterprise.

He would like to expand the AEI’s ability to communicate with young high-achievers. I think that this is much more than a technical challenge. It is not a matter of utilizing new media or coming up with better targeting. Young people do not want to be an “audience” receiving the wisdom of experts. They want to participate in the conversation.

Brooks thinks that the case for markets must be made in moral terms rather than in material terms. Young members of the cognitive elite (my term, not his) take affluence for granted, as well they might. They are focused on other values (you may recall the Russ Roberts podcast with Dan Pink, talking about autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose).

Brooks would like to reverse the usual tenor of the debate in which the opponents of capitalism make moral arguments and the defenders of capitalism make material arguments. He would like to leave the opponents of capitalism arguing for material equality in the context of a sterile, corporatist-statist economy that stifles individual creativity. He would like to have the defenders of capitalism argue that human flourishing requires allowing people to strive for and earn their success.

I think that America has a long-standing religious divide. I draw on sources such as Walter Russell Mead, David Hackett-Fischer and Daniel Walker Howe. On one side are the descendants of New England’s Puritans and others, who have always wanted to improve society. They gave us the anti-slavery movement, the temperance movement, and the Progressive movement. Call this the Northern Evangelical strain. On the other side are the descendants of other strands of Protestantism, who emphasize self-help and honor. Call this the Southern Evangelical strain. Lee Harris would call them the natural libertarians.

I see Brooks as wanting to throw in his lot with the Southern Evangelicals and to take on the Northern Evangelicals. On the other hand, many libertarian intellectuals feel more comfortable socially on the other side of the divide. Ironically, this is in part because there is more tolerance of gay marriage among the people who I think of as descendants of the Puritans.

Brooks strikes me as wanting to execute a difficult pivot at the AEI. For attracting young leaders, he considers establishment conservatism to be overly focused on narrow concepts of economic performance. He is trying to make what I would call a Southern Evangelical sales pitch to young leaders. In effect, he seems to want to say, “If you are inclined to be either a business or social entrepreneur, then you want to join our side. The other side is going to smother you inside a huge bureaucratic state.”

Many of us think that young leaders will be difficult to reach with a Southern Evangelical message, however thoughtfully it is crafted. Brink Lindsey seeks to approach young leaders from the opposite direction, using what he and Will Wilkinson term liberaltarianism. Lindsey and Wilkinson say, in effect, “Your Northern Evangelical roots are fine. We just want to explain to you the practical value of markets.”

I think that Brooks would argue that people take their political stands morally, not materially. Thus, the libertarian voice for markets as efficient and effective will fall on deaf ears. Instead, he would say that we should make the case that people are more satisfied with earned success, however modest, than with government subsidies, however generous.

I worry that the AEI is an unlikely vehicle for carrying Brooks’ message. I keep coming back to my “stodgy” image for the AEI. It is known for its academically certified policy work, not for conveying the uplifting qualities of free enterprise.

I also wonder whether the AEI is capable of getting out of content-production mode and into conversational mode. If my hypothesis is correct, reaching young leaders who are outside of the immediate GOP establishment orbit is going to require a more conversational approach.