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The battle between free enterprise and big government is America's new culture war

You don’t have to look very hard to see that America is engaged in a culture war. To Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, it’s not a war over gun control, abortion or gay rights but rather a contest between capitalism and big government. In his book, “The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future,” Brooks lays out a moral vision for the resurgence of the ideals of individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance that have formed the American identity. We asked him to elaborate in an email Q&A.

What is the new culture war in America?

It's not about Republicans versus Democrats. It is a struggle between our traditional free enterprise system and European-style social democracy.

All the available data -- from sources such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center -- tell us that approximately 70 percent of the population hold traditional views on the free enterprise system, while the other 30 percent prefer a much more statist, redistributive economy. While these numbers appear to favor a traditional free enterprise culture, the 30 percent coalition has a tremendous amount of influence in key industries, and has been effective in influencing a large number of young Americans.

The outcome of the culture struggle will depend on whether today’s young people turn into tomorrow’s American social democrats, and the 30 percent coalition in favor of statism and redistribution turns into a full-fledged majority.

Why have the forces of social democracy grown stronger?

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a great game-changer for the 30 percent coalition -- an opportunity to attack the free enterprise system as too risky for America to allow to continue in its current form. Of course, this meant ignoring the true cause of the crisis -- government policy -- and focusing instead on greed and stupidity in the private sector (which was abundant, I should add). The government had to be largely ignored because, of course, the government was offered as the solution to the problem.

How will a rise in statism and redistribution affect America?

Redistributionists always contends that relative income is the most significant source of unhappiness -- that poorer people are unhappier than richer people simply because they have less money through no fault of their own. Thus, we can get a happier, fairer society by equalizing incomes through government coercion. This contention is based on a colossal misreading of data and a whole lot of ideology.

The truth is that relative income is not directly related to happiness. Non-partisan data from the General Social Survey clearly show that the big driver of happiness is “earned success”: the belief that one has created value in his or her life, or in the life of others. Of course, under free enterprise, earned success (particularly market success) is often rewarded financially, so people who have earned a lot of success tend to have more money than others. But it’s the success, not the money, that does the trick. (We show this by comparing the happiness of equally poor people with different perceived success levels.)

Why is the reassertion of free enterprise a moral issue?

Free enterprise is essentially a formula not just for wealth creation, but for life satisfaction. That’s what makes it not just an economic alternative, but a moral imperative.

How have conservatives stumbled in making the case for free enterprise?

Liberals have generally described free enterprise as nothing more than an economic alternative to socialism. This is fundamentally materialistic and flawed in that it strips economic freedom of its expressive content. It ignores the fact that choosing how we earn our daily bread is a highly human thing to do -- work is very personal, and for most Americans (nearly 90 percent, according to the data), central to a satisfying life.

Conservatives have made the grave error of accepting the materialistic liberal terms of debate, and arguing only the economic merits of free enterprise. Conservatives should be willing and able to make the transcendental case for free enterprise and talk about life satisfaction -- that earning one’s success honestly is one of life’s joys, and that the free enterprise system allows the most people to earn the most success.

Are there grounds for agreement?

Fundamentally, yes. None of the patterns I have discussed pose an existential threat to our nation, and there is a great deal we agree on. For example, virtually everybody -- whether they are in the 70 percent majority or the 30 percent coalition -- believes this “culture war” should be a non-violent one, and that we should argue within the parameters of maintaining a safe, stable, democratic society. This is quite extraordinary, historically speaking. Many places in the world, culture struggles lead to violence, repression, and secession. Not in America. Remembering the value of this creates a powerful common cause for celebration for a great country.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
 | Tags: Arthur C. Brooks, Capitalism, Democracy, Economic freedom, Liberty, Pew Research Center, Politics, United States  
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