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Culture Q&A

Arthur Brooks

'Earned success'

Free enterprise is fair, says economist Arthur Brooks, and arguments for it should emphasize its morality

'Earned success'

Arthur Brooks (Luke Sharrett)

Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, one of Washington's leading think tanks. His books include The Battle (WORLD's Book of the Year in 2010) and this year's The Road to Freedom. Before pursuing an academic career he played the French horn in major orchestras.

How many French hornists have become presidents of the American Enterprise Institute? One.

What are the similarities between playing the French horn and being president of AEI? Creativity ... the working out of ideas that are of interest to other people ... and the privilege of having audiences enjoy your work. The only barriers in front of you are those put in place by your own imagination.

Why did you decide to move from a prestigious orchestra position to academic work? Things were going well ... and I wasn't happy. What I wanted to be was an economist. I wanted to do that analysis of how the gears turn in society. I hadn't even gone to college, so at 28 I had to go to college and get a graduate degree.

When you told your dad about your new plan, what did he say? I said, "Dad, I want to become an economist." After a silence he said, "Why would you want to do that? You're at the top of your career." I said, "Because I'm not happy." He said, "What makes you so special?"

Some students take out enormous loans to go to prestigious schools. You've done pretty well without going down that path. While in Barcelona I started taking college courses by extension again. My B.A. is from a place in New Jersey called Thomas Edison State College. I've never visited the place, but I'm thankful for it: Got a degree in four years for $10,000, books and all. I wonder what the school colors are.

That hasn't stopped you in your career. Yeah, not until today when everybody just found out I went to correspondence school.

A Harvard economist once told me he did not plan to have any children because he figured that every child would cost him a book, and he wanted to publish books rather than have children. You have three children, and you've published lots of books. Does having children inspire you to publish more? I do believe the world will benefit more from my children than it will from my books, but there is a connection. My wife and I had had our two sons biologically. I was writing this book about charity and finding that when people give to charities their lives improve dramatically. I wrote a chapter on it, and everything I write my wife Esther reads.

That's wise. For sure. She's spiked a lot of my stuff. Susan probably spikes your stuff too sometimes, right?

Yeah. A couple times that she hasn't I wish she had. Exactly. So I brought home this chapter that shows charitable actions make you happy and healthy. Esther ruminated on it for a while, then said, "We ought to use the information in this book to change our lives a little bit. I think we should give more." I said, "OK, I'll write a check." And she said, "I think we should adopt a baby." I said, "It's only a book!" Then of course I had no argument, so we did. We adopted our daughter from China. She's now 8 years old.

Your new book, The Road to Freedom: Why is that trip necessary? People who agree that free enterprise is the best system to improve the lives of the most people have failed to make the most persuasive arguments for it. It's horrible. We stupidly lose arguments all the time. You make this bulletproof case that the only way to bring our economy back is by lowering our corporate tax and having an effective fiscal consolidation, etc., etc.

Then your opponent in a debate says ... "Yes, but I just met a little girl who lives with her mother in a car. Why don't you want the government to help them?" And you lose the argument immediately - even though that's a dubious anecdotal argument, and your argument has all the data behind it.

Don't those debates often seem like a battle of the moral left vs. the materialistic right - and that's deadly for the right? It's an absolute killer. You think grandma is going to let Paul Ryan fiddle with her Social Security on the promise that her grandkids might get a slightly better mortgage rate? No way! The argument has to be moral. It has to be about fairness. It has to be about stealing from future generations and getting in the way of entrepreneurs - getting in the way of people who are actually trying to earn their success.

Two questions: First, how should we define fairness? Seventy percent of Americans believe that true fairness means rewarding merit and creating an opportunity society, which is exactly what the free enterprise system is designed to do. The fairest system is one in which people have an opportunity to rise. That doesn't mean they shouldn't have a safety net, but a safety net is not middle-class welfare. It's not spreading the wealth and getting rid of risk: It's simply making sure that people don't have the most abysmal poverty and starve.

So you don't think the Patrick Henry "A" students here should give 10 percent of their points to the "D" students so they can move up to "C"? I tried this once at my college. About halfway through a semester I said, "I'm going to take a quarter of the points from students at the top of the class and give those to people at the bottom of the class. Why? Because I'm going to spread the wealth around!" Every person in the class - including the "D" students - knew that was idiotic because it wasn't fair.

Second question: "Earned success" is a key concept in your book. What does that mean? Earned success is the idea that you're creating value with your life and value in the lives of other people. It's not money per se: It's the value you create with your life. You can denominate it with souls saved, or neighborhoods that are habitable, or clean drinking water in Africa, or lots of money, or beautiful works of art, or having children who are honest and have good values, or whatever. People who say they've earned their success are the happiest people. It has to be earned.

So we should try to let everyone have a shot at earned success? We have to try to recognize the ways that our opportunity society fails, and then take it upon ourselves to rectify those failures. What are we doing, for example, about the civil-rights nightmare that is public education today? We have whole public-school systems that exist for the benefit of grown-ups and not kids.


Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Arthur Brooks: