“Capitalism, (AEI’s Brooks) insists, succeeds not because it is based on greed, but because the freedom to trade and do business with others is in harmony with our God-given nature. So he has no patience for those who fear the moral argument. Mr. Brooks puts it this way: “Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.”…

…AEI aims to change that. “We should be shouting it from the rooftops,” he says….“We need to know Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ as well as we do the Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ ” he says. “Because when you do, you begin to understand we are hard-wired for freedom by the same Creator who gave us our unalienable rights.”….“Our side has all the right policies,” Mr. Brooks says. “But without the music, the public hears just numbers and we have no resonance.”…..It begins by emphasizing that those who benefit most from freer markets are the have-nots: those without inherited wealth, prestigious credentials, social or class advantages—in other words, people whose only hope for a better life is a social order that will reward their hard work and enterprise…..Certainly that has been borne out by the world’s experience. In 1938 it might not have been clear that capitalism was the key to human flourishing. But no longer. The liberation of hundreds of millions from desperate poverty ranks among the greatest success stories in history. But it’s a story that remains largely untold and mostly unheralded.

“The central disappointment of the Obama administration is that he campaigned on unity and optimism but governed on division and pessimism,” he says. “We will not flourish if conservatives respond in kind, and make this a contest between dueling pessimisms.”

It comes down to this: In the capitalist view, poor people aren’t liabilities to be managed by government; they are human beings with untapped potential. Mr. Brooks makes that argument over and over and wherever he can, whether on a panel with President Obama at Georgetown University, a conference with Archbishop of Canterbury in London, or on home ground at AEI with his friend the Dalai Lama. Across the world—in Greece, China or America—the trust in free markets is being tested. But the French-horn player who sits atop the American Enterprise Institute remains confident that the growth of market freedom will liberate ever more millions from the bondage of poverty and despair.”, William McGurn, “Playing the Music of Capitalism”, The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2015

“Thankfully, as I have been told by a devout Catholic (which I am not) friend, the Pope (Francis) is only infallible when it comes to matters of religion and the faith!!! Respectfully, I know the AEI and its leader Brooks is right and Pope Francis is terribly and disappointingly (for Catholic capitalists/entrepreneurs like myself) wrong when it comes to global capitalism.”, Mike Perry, former Chairman and CEO, IndyMac Bank

Opinion

Playing the Music of Capitalism

The leader of Washington’s hottest think tank says that to become a majority again, conservatives need to reassert the moral case for free markets.

By William McGurn

Photo: Ken Fallin

Before he was president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks played the French horn. Not on the side. For a living.

It’s not the standard route to the top job at a Beltway think tank. Then again, not much about Mr. Brooks is standard. From dropping out of college to go to Spain to play for the Barcelona City Orchestra, to earning his B.A. degree via correspondence courses from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, his life makes for an eclectic résumé.

Today he boasts a Ph.D. from the RAND Graduate School and enjoys an honored spot in the capital’s intellectual firmament. But the horn still defines how he sees the world.

“The French horn is the harmonic backbone of the orchestra,” Mr. Brooks says. “The physics are tricky. It’s as long as a tuba but with a mouthpiece as small as a trumpet’s. This gives the French horn its characteristic mellow sound but also makes it easy to miss notes. The metaphors here form themselves.”

Indeed they do. Not least because think tanks have distinct personalities in addition to their politics.

The libertarian Cato Institute, for example, looks as though it had been designed by Howard Roark, the hero architect of Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead.” The Liberty Bell on the Heritage Foundation logo evokes a classic conservatism rooted in the American founding. The clean modernist lines of the Brookings Institution suggest its faith in good, rational government.

In Mr. Brooks’s hands, AEI has become an orchestra. Sure, it is sometimes labeled “neocon” (almost always deployed as a pejorative) because of the home it provides for former George W. Bush administration officials such as John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz, not to mention scholars such as Fred Kagan who write on military matters. These people are all vital to AEI, but they are only part of a larger ensemble.

“Our side has all the right policies,” Mr. Brooks says. “But without the music, the public hears just numbers and we have no resonance.”

He is speaking over lunch in his corner office overlooking 17th and M streets in northwest Washington, D.C. The office isn’t standard-issue, either.

The walls are bereft of the signed photos and tributes from presidents, senators and other pooh-bahs that are de riguer for the capital’s movers and shakers. The largest piece in the room is a poster featuring José Tomás, Spain’s greatest bullfighter. Mr. Brooks once saw him in the ring. “A true master artist,” he says.

The other poster is from the Soviet Union circa 1964. It features two workers. One is a drunk scratching his head as he looks at the one-ruble note in his hand. The other is a hale-and-hearty type proudly looking at the 10 rubles he has earned. The caption: “Work more, earn more.”

“It was part of a public-information campaign to raise productivity by paying people more,” Mr. Brooks says. It’s the sort of irony he loves, a confirmation of basic market wisdom—courtesy of communist propaganda.

In some ways, the Soviet poster serves the great AEI mission that began with its founding in New York in 1938: to cultivate “a greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise.”

While the mission remains unchanged, Mr. Brooks believes his obligation goes far beyond the production of academic tomes. These have their place, but if the champions of free markets hope to sell the message to those who aren’t already sold, he says they need to speak to the heart as much as to the head.

It’s what he means by “the music.” It begins by emphasizing that those who benefit most from freer markets are the have-nots: those without inherited wealth, prestigious credentials, social or class advantages—in other words, people whose only hope for a better life is a social order that will reward their hard work and enterprise.

Certainly that has been borne out by the world’s experience. In 1938 it might not have been clear that capitalism was the key to human flourishing. But no longer.

When he was a child, Mr. Brooks notes, one of four people lived on less than a dollar a day. Today, though we still have far to go, the advance of trade and a globalized economy has shrunk that figure to one of 20.

The liberation of hundreds of millions from desperate poverty ranks among the greatest success stories in history. But it’s a story that remains largely untold and mostly unheralded. In his new book, “The Conservative Heart,” Mr. Brooks puts it this way: “Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.”

AEI aims to change that. “We should be shouting it from the rooftops,” he says. “If Beethoven were alive today, he would dedicate the ‘Ode to Joy’ to this miracle. In the very first verse of that poem—which inspired Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—we hear, ‘Beggars become Princes’ brothers’! If this is so, it is because of free enterprise.”

Few today would deny the market’s success in literally producing the goods. For some, however, this is a paradox. It’s a paradox because, in this way of thinking, socialism has the higher ideals but fails in practice, while capitalism succeeds in practice even though it is based on greed.

Mr. Brooks believes these critics are limited by materialistic assumptions about wealth and its production. Capitalism, he insists, succeeds not because it is based on greed, but because the freedom to trade and do business with others is in harmony with our God-given nature. So he has no patience for those who fear the moral argument.

“We need to know Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ as well as we do the Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ ” he says. “Because when you do, you begin to understand we are hard-wired for freedom by the same Creator who gave us our unalienable rights.”

Donors seem to like what they are hearing. AEI has never lacked for influence, and its scholars have helped staff many a Republican White House. But under Mr. Brooks the organization is experiencing explosive growth.

In the six years since he took over as president, annual donations have nearly doubled, to $40 million today from roughly $22 million in 2009. The endowment is about $90 million. “We don’t accept government money,” he says, “and we’re proud of that.”

There are more people too—225 full-time scholars and staff, up from 145. They range from political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, public-opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman and political scientist Charles Murray to political scientist and journalist Norman Ornstein, Yale Medical School’s Sally Satel and Kevin Hassett, a former senior economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

But the many additions that AEI has made means it is now busting at the seams. This forced a big decision: Come February, AEI will move out of the office building it has called home since 1971 and into a refurbished historic landmark off DuPont Circle. It’s a former luxury apartment building where Andrew Mellon once lived.

Mellon was the millionaire financier who served as Treasury secretary for three presidents: Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. In this capacity he successfully pushed for large tax cuts that helped usher in a great period of American economic growth.

The compatibility is not lost on Mr. Brooks. Nor is a sense of proportion: “My office,” he notes, “will be Mellon’s former master bath.”

Mr. Brooks’s ready sense of humor seems of a piece with his ideological dedication to happiness—or at least to “the pursuit of happiness,” as Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Brooks has written several books and more than a few op-eds on the subject, and he says social science confirms that happiness comes from faith, family, community and work.

The first three are familiar conservative standbys. But work deserves more attention, he says. And here’s where the purely materialistic assumptions about money and income and status break down, because work itself brings satisfaction.

And guess what? This isn’t true only for Harvard professors, Hollywood stars or Silicon Valley types. He cites a survey showing that those with the least education, the lowest incomes and the least-prestigious jobs report that they wouldn’t quit working even if they suddenly had the money to do so. That reality, he says, should make us think twice before tossing around phrases like “dead-end jobs.”

In the end, the only sour note Mr. Brooks sounds has to do with his worry that the Obama years might lead conservatives to forsake the optimism inherent in the view that we can write a better future for ourselves, our neighbors and our country.

“The central disappointment of the Obama administration is that he campaigned on unity and optimism but governed on division and pessimism,” he says. “We will not flourish if conservatives respond in kind, and make this a contest between dueling pessimisms.”

He doesn’t say so, but he could be talking about Mitt Romney. On paper Mr. Romney had all the credentials to make the case on the campaign trail for how free markets lift people up. But his success was used against him, best reflected in the devastating post-election poll finding that four of five Americans believed the former Massachusetts governor didn’t care “about people like me.”

That’s the kind of thing that politics can do. But it maddens Mr. Brooks that “liberals win moral arguments about the economy with materialistic assumptions about wealth” while “conservatives lose these arguments even though we have moral understanding of wealth.”

It comes down to this: In the capitalist view, poor people aren’t liabilities to be managed by government; they are human beings with untapped potential. Mr. Brooks makes that argument over and over and wherever he can, whether on a panel with President Obama at Georgetown University, a conference with Archbishop of Canterbury in London, or on home ground at AEI with his friend the Dalai Lama.

Across the world—in Greece, China or America—the trust in free markets is being tested. But the French-horn player who sits atop the American Enterprise Institute remains confident that the growth of market freedom will liberate ever more millions from the bondage of poverty and despair.

“We don’t need to write an opera about free enterprise to reach people,” he says. “But it’s not a bad idea.”

Mr. McGurn is a Journal columnist and a member of the editorial board.

Posted on July 13, 2015, in Postings. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Outstanding perspective and wonderfully articulated. Reince Priebus should take note.

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