News: CJ Exclusives

Friday Interview: Free Enterprise Paves the Road to Freedom

American Enterprise Institute president Brooks discusses his latest book

Nearly 70 years have passed since economist F.A. Hayek warned the Western world in his book The Road to Serfdom about the dangers of moving toward bigger, more intrusive government. Hayek’s book proved to be a classic among classical liberals and conservatives. Now, the head of the American Enterprise Institute has released a book titled The Road to Freedom. AEI President Arthur C. Brooks discussed key themes from his book with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: Many of the people in our audience will know the title The Road to Serfdom. Was The Road to Freedom title a conscious effort to pay tribute to Hayek’s most famous work?

Brooks: It was. I mean, Friedrich Hayek’s work has influenced me and my understanding of economics more than anybody else. The Road to Serfdom is the most consequential work ever written to understand the proper role of government and the importance of freedom, and, frankly, what we lose when we sacrifice the free-enterprise system in favor of statism. So any way that we can honor that and get people more interested in The Road to Serfdom is OK by me.

Kokai: In writing The Road to Freedom, what do you set out as the road?

Brooks: The road to freedom is, effectively, free enterprise. The road to freedom as a society is free enterprise. And the reason I say this is in response to a common mistake that people make in the conservative movement: understanding free enterprise as nothing more than an economic alternative, as a way to be more prosperous, as a way to make more money, to be the richest society in the history of the world.

In point of fact, that’s not the important thing about the free-enterprise system. It’s not an economic alternative; it’s a moral imperative. What I show in this book, The Road to Freedom, is that the road to freedom for us as individuals goes through the system that allows us to earn our success — the fairest system that rewards merit, and a system that literally is the only one that can lift up the poor by the billions around the world. That’s the free-enterprise system. That’s why it’s the road to personal freedom. That’s the road to freedom for people, true freedom.

Kokai: I understand that one of your key points is that the free-enterprise system represents more than just people scrambling for the most cash they can get. Why is it important to emphasize the moral dimension to free enterprise?

Brooks: Well, just talking about the material things won’t get the job done. Conservatives and free-enterprise advocates, for generations, have been talking about simply the material case for free enterprise. And it’s self-evidently the case that the government has grown, statism has expanded, we’re moving toward a European-style social democratic state. Today, all levels of government soak up 36 percent of American [gross domestic product]. By 2038 — this is according to the government itself — the government will be eating 50 percent of American GDP.

You know, this is not a free-enterprise society in which our skills and our passions can meet and we can keep the rewards of our meritorious behavior. It’s a different kind of society, in point of fact. And it’s one that, today, most Americans don’t like. They have to understand what their objection to it is.

Seventy percent of Americans take more out of the tax system than they put into it, and 50 percent of Americans have no federal income tax liability. So it’s not that they just want lower taxes. What they want is more freedom. They need it. Their souls need it. That’s the moral case for free enterprise, and that’s something that we have to focus in on, or we’re going to lose this fight, and America is going to be the worse for it.

Kokai: Let’s discuss how you would target your message to a couple of different high-profile groups. First, the Tea Party. How would you target your message to Tea Party supporters?

Brooks: The Tea Party movement is an extraordinary moral movement. It’s an ethical populist movement, where they’re rising up to reject exactly the things that the Greek protesters are demanding. It’s like the antithesis of what’s going on in Europe. It’s fantastic. They rose up for moral reasons, to fight against overweening nanny-state government policies, against crushing debt — all of these types of things.

Now … to make this live its promise, to be more effective, for there to be a regeneration in the Tea Party movement, is to make sure that the message itself is matching the energy and the reasons for the existence of the movement. In other words, it’s not good enough to say, “I want to fix this country,” and then to go out and scream, “We need fiscal consolidation.” … “The debt limit is too high.”

That’s not going to convince Americans. That’s not going to win souls. That’s not going to make people say, “Yes, I want to join you.” Tea Party advocates have to get out there and say, “The reasons I’m here are the reasons that are written on my heart, for the reasons I love freedom and I love my country, and it’s my moral obligation to pass on this great system of free enterprise to my kids and my grandkids. It’s not fair for me to steal this from future generations. It’s not fair for me to steal this from people I’ve never met, who just haven’t been born yet. That’s just not right.” … When they can articulate it, then we’re going to see some real victory.

Kokai: What about the Occupy movement? Are there messages in The Road to Freedom that could help members of the Occupy movement see things more clearly?

Brooks: Yeah, for sure. You listen to the Occupy Wall Street guys, and you say, “Oh, man, they just hate capitalism,” and they don’t understand free enterprise, and it’s easier to write them off. But, you know, there are some things that we need to listen to that they’re saying. One of the things that offends them the most is corporate cronyism, is the fact that certain populations in the business ecosystem out there — companies, individuals — have disproportionate access to government: special favors, lobbyists, government affairs offices, powerful lawyers, clever accountants. And so they get special breaks from the government.

That actually is just the same thing as statism. Corporate cronyism doesn’t exist if it weren’t for statism. Corporate cronyism is the co-dependent wife of Big Government, you know, and when they complain that it’s not fair for certain organizations to abuse the capitalist system and to take special deals out of it, they’re right. Now, they don’t know the difference between real free enterprise and corporate cronyism. Our job is to help them understand that they’re right about corporate cronyism, not because free enterprise is bad, but because we want true free enterprise.

Kokai: You’ve written a book titled The Battle. Now you’re releasing The Road to Freedom during the battle that constitutes the 2012 elections. Just how critical is it that we use the elections of 2012 to set a new course, to move toward that road to freedom?

Brooks: It’s very critical. Any time you’ve got an opportunity to change leaders, … we have a responsibility in a democracy, like the United States, to choose wisely — to choose leaders that represent our values, and represent them faithfully. It’s a really big deal.

Now, unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying vote for one party or another. I’m an independent. The reason I’m an independent is not just because I love both parties. It’s because I don’t really trust either party very much. You know, when you love free enterprise, you get tired of getting burned again and again and again. We have to transcend this notion that party politics is going to solve our problem. We have to choose people who reflect our values, no matter what party they belong to, and we have to hold people’s feet to the fire no matter what party they belong to, as well.

Kokai: If both parties are guilty of straying from support of the free-enterprise system, do you have any confidence that we’ll be able to put some people in office who do support policies that would lead to the road to freedom?

Brooks: I am confident for the following reason: Never bet against America. If you did, at any time, in the past couple hundred years, you would have lost a lot of money. This is a great country, and it’s a country that can renew itself. But the only way it will renew itself is by remembering its values and not just its material prosperity.

That’s the critical thing that we have to keep in mind. I am optimistic that patriots, at all levels in American society, from the grass roots to the grass tops, can come together and say, “This must stop.” And it doesn’t matter what political party they belong to. But if they can make the moral case for the liberties that we love and the country that we love, we really can change course. But only if we make that case.