The Ethos of Arthur Brooks
By Bryan Caplan
Ethos (Credibility), or ethical appeal, means convincing
by the character of the author. We tend to believe people whom we respect.
One of the central problems of argumentation is to project an impression
to the reader that you are someone worth listening to, in other words making
yourself as author into an authority on the subject of the paper, as well
as someone who is likable and worthy of respect. (source)
There is plenty to argue with in Arthur Brooks’ new The Road to Freedom. But I find it difficult to picture a reader who isn’t moved by Brooks’ description of his personal odyssey. I actually read it to my wife in the hospital the day after she gave birth. Brooks:
I used to have what some considered the best job possible, yet was unhappy. I spent my whole childhood playing music – violin, then piano, and then finally the French horn. From the age of nine, playing the horn was practically all I did… I never thought about whether I would pursue a career as a musician; it was simply inevitable… After a few years, I won a job playing in a symphony orchestra – the dream of most classical musicians.
My friends in the orchestra thrived on what they were doing and threw themselves into it with abandonment… Try as I might, I lacked such ardor. I loved great music, but found the production of it punitive and exacting, and I knew my job would never change much. My friends had found the soul in their work, but I hadn’t found the soul in mine.
So in my late twenties, I hatched a plot to quit. I took a job teaching music during the day, and (without telling anyone but my wife) studied economics at night until I had a bachelor’s degree. At age thirty-one, I gave up the horn and started graduate school, planning to become a social scientist and write books… When I called my father to announce my career change, he asked incredulously, “Why do you want to leave music, when it’s going so well”? “Because I’m not happy,” I told him. He was silent for a moment and then demanded, “What’s makes you so special?”
Brooks then immediately draws deep philosophical lessons – lessons that are hard to question once you know the story of Arthur Brooks:
The fact is, I’m not so special. But I’m just an American, and I understood instinctively that the genius of our free enterprise system is that it makes it possible for people to reinvent themselves and earn their success. That is why the U.S. has always been a magnet for people from other parts of the world who want to transform their lives… Today, I feel I earn my success, and my job gives me joy.
Brooks is too nice of a guy to harp on the flip side of his insight: In even a relatively free society, people also earn their failure. If you can avoid – or could have avoided – your problems with better choices, you should first and foremost blame yourself – not strangers who think they’re taxed enough already.