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Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of 11 books including his most recent work, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. He’s one of the few geniuses I know, so over the years we’ve had more Q&As with him than with anyone else: See WORLD, Dec. 9, 2006; May 17, 2008; Jan. 16, 2010; and Sept. 22, 2012. Here are edited excerpts of our latest:
Not many people move from playing the French horn in Barcelona to being in charge of a major think tank. Why Barcelona? Some kids want to grow up and be a baseball player. I wanted to be a French horn player, which is really nerdy and weird. Started at age 8, and it’s a blast to be better than all the other kids at something. I wanted to do it for a living. My parents made it possible for me to pursue that dream. I’m really grateful to them for that. I went with the Barcelona Symphony because I was in hot pursuit of the girl I wanted to marry. We’ve now been married for 25 years and have three kids.
You and your wife both had unusual educational paths. When I first met her, it took a while before we could communicate because she didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish. At one juncture we had just enough communication for me to confess that I dropped out of college. She started laughing and told me she dropped out of high school when she was 16 to join a rock band. That’s a really bad career direction. I don’t recommend it to my kids or to any of the Patrick Henry College students here.
You both benefited from correspondence courses. She wound up going back to high school by correspondence and graduating at 29. I finished college by correspondence just before my 30th birthday. When we were newly married, she was taking a calculus class—she taught me a little bit and it was the most interesting thing, so I started taking a college correspondence class in calculus. One thing led to another, and I wound up back in college. It was so interesting—a vast amount of knowledge out there, and I liked it so much.
‘When people believe they’re creating value with their lives and value in the lives of other people, they truly tend to be happier people.’
And Ester helped you make the change. She said, “I don’t think you’re really happy as a musician. Why don’t we move to the States and you finish your college degree and then try something new?” It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but we did it. We didn’t have any money. She got four job offers in her first month, all minimum wage jobs. She said, “This is the greatest country in the world for people who want to work.”
Then Thomas Edison State College, RAND Ph.D., Syracuse professorship, AEI, and now The Conservative Heart: Why that title? Too often people think that being a conservative means that you’re hard-hearted. Last year we had a public forum about poverty at Georgetown University. Onstage I said to President Obama, “The reason I’m a conservative is because poverty is what I care about the most.” He looked at me with surprise. He couldn’t believe what I just said.
Why does conservatism go along with effective anti-poverty work? It’s the best way to build a system that treats the poor as people with potential, and believes they should have the opportunity to earn their success. When the Savior walked along the Sea of Galilee and saw Peter working on his nets, He didn’t say, “I’m here to help you.” He said, “I need you to do My work.” That’s how He talked to the apostles all throughout His ministry for three years: “I need you.” That’s empowering.
That’s what the United States used to say to immigrants. At the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your poor.” We’re going to build our great country on your work and your toil and your energy and your entrepreneurship. Now, we’ve rendered 25 percent of the population superfluous. That’s a civil rights nightmare, and a moral mistake.
You’ve argued for the importance of “earned success.” Earned success as a concept grew out of work in the late 1960s by a great social psychologist, Martin Seligman. He studied “learned helplessness,” which happens when you take away from somebody what they earned or give them rewards they didn’t earn. They become helpless, despondent, depressed. We’re wired to earn things. We’re not wired to be helpless and get stuff for free.
False compassion creates learned helplessness? It treats the poor as less than the rest of us. It cuts into their dignity and denigrates their potential. One of the great secrets to happiness is earned success. When people believe they’re creating value with their lives and value in the lives of other people, they truly tend to be happier people. Earned success comes from all different forms, not just starting a business. It’s also raising a family, creating a beautiful work of art, or doing something in a social sphere that’s totally uncompensated in terms of money but creates value and lets your life be your witness.
The official poverty rate has changed little in 50 years: about 15 percent then, about 15 percent now. In one way that’s unrealistic, because it doesn’t take into account welfare payments. But this statistic does show that 15 percent don’t have earned success financially. It’s not good to feel you’re not earning your success. Here’s a vital statistic: The percentage of guys aged 20 to 64 who are not working or in school or prison used to be 7 percent. Now it’s 18 percent. That’s a powder keg, and deeply immoral. It’s a bad social situation, but it’s deeply immoral as well. We give them a dole. We don’t help them become good stewards of their own talents.
You write in The Conservative Heart, “Creating a separate set of moral standards according to socioeconomic status is not an act of mercy. It is a crime against the poor.” People ask about the poor, “How can you expect for them to form and maintain intact families? How can you expect them to stay in jobs when they’re dead-end jobs? How can you expect them to not want to tear up the community property in their neighborhoods when these are lousy neighborhoods to begin with?” The answer: If we believed the poor to be inferior, we’d treat them with different moral standards. But nondiscrimination and nonbigotry mean treating the poor with enough respect to hold them to the same moral standards.
So what’s the first message a person suffering from learned helplessness needs to hear? “I need you.” One example: Richard, a year out of prison after serving 22 years for murder, was at a minimum wage job working for an exterminator company. I asked him how things were going, and he showed me an email from his boss: “Emergency bed bug job E. 65th Street. I need you now.” I said, “So?” He said, “Read it again. ‘I need you now.’ That’s the first time in my life anybody said that to me.”