Learned helplessness is just the opposite of earned success: it’s what happens when our rewards and punishment aren’t tied to effort and merit. When people don’t feel that their efforts are likely to results in success, they give up and become passive. And they become terribly unhappy in the process.
FP: Why do you think the Left has captured the moral high-ground in the context of the issues you discuss and in our culture in general?
Brooks: Free enterprise advocates don’t have the moral high ground because we haven’t consistently made a moral argument. We haven’t fought back against the claims that all we care about is rich people and making money, even though we all know it’s completely wrong. We have ourselves to blame.
Take the word “fairness.” President Obama used some version of that word fourteen times in his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas last year. He’s been calling for a so-called “Buffett rule” to “makes sure everybody pays their fair share.” And he claims only his policies will ensure “everyone engages in fair play and everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share.”
As I said earlier, he’s talking about redistributive fairness. We need to talk about merit-based fairness; it’s the version that most Americans agree with, and it’s the version that’s most philosophically sound. Fortunately, some conservative leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Representative Paul Ryan have begun to stand up on this. I hope others will as well.
FP: In the book, you propose certain policy reforms that can heal this nation. Tell us some of them.
Brooks: First and foremost, we have to get back to economic growth by getting out of the way of entrepreneurs. Weak growth means the end of our opportunity society. That’s about as immoral as you can get. Second, and related to the first, we have to stop picking winners, reject cronyism, and allow entrepreneurs to create jobs. Work provides not just income but is an important part of what gives our life meaning. We have to get serious about entrepreneur-led—not government-led—job creation.
Third, we have to reign in spending to control the debt; there’s nothing fair about spending money our children have yet to earn. So fourth, we have to fix entitlements by making them about a safety net, not robbing future generations to support the middle-class elderly. Fifth, we have to reform our tax code to make it fairer by taking social engineering out of the picture and not penalizing savings and investment—the very things that make growth and jobs possible.
These aren’t radical new ideas. For the most part, they’re ideas conservatives have been working on for years, in some cases for a generation. But we haven’t been successful because we haven’t explained why they’re the morally correct policies. That’s our challenge, and it’s one I spent a great deal of time on in the book.
FP: How important is the 2012 election?
Brooks: I think it’s quickly becoming a referendum on what kind of country we want to be: one defined by redistribution and a low profile on the international scene; or a country defined by dynamism, explosive growth, and a deep belief in American exceptionalism.
But we have to do much more than just elect free enterprise-friendly politicians. We have to continually and without apology stand up to and confront the statists who would turn us into a European welfare state that can’t effectively fight freedom’s enemies around the globe. We have to call out those who claim to believe in free enterprise but really believe in deals, connections, and cronyism. And we have to tell our friends and family and neighbors why we believe in free enterprise and why it’s right for America.
FP: What can the average American citizen do to defend America’s moral system of free enterprise?
Brooks: The book’s website (arthurbrooks.aei.org) has a whole section on how to take tangible action, whether one is a student, policymaker, business leader, or in any other role.
Above all, do this: Understand and repeatedly reiterate the moral case for free enterprise. It’s an argument that should be a slam dunk for us. Only free enterprise allows us to earn our own success, is truly fair, and really helps the poor. The moral case is clear, and it’s compelling. But we have to fight for it.
FP: Arthur Brooks, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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