In titling his new book The Road to Freedom, Arthur Brooks obviously means to call to mind Friedrich Hayek's classic The Road to Serfdom. Following Hayek, Brooks argues that we in America are still on a road to serfdom; that is, despite what we may think, America continues to be on the road to soft socialism, the same road Hayek warned about a half-century ago, the very road that faltering Europe is now realizing leads to a crumbling cliff of economic ruin.
We can learn from Europe's foolish economic self-destruction, Brook asserts, but only if we understand the moral case for what he takes to be socialism's opposite, free enterprise.
Americans, he claims, are not mere materialists. Rather, we are (currently misguided) moralists looking for the right reasons to do the right things. We want a moral argument for economic policies, and too many conservatives settle for mere economic arguments for economic policies.
Appeals to efficiency of the free market over the controlled market of socialism are not enough, says Brooks. Appeals to greater prosperity are not enough. As Americans, as human beings, we have a deep intimation that moral goodness is the proper key to happiness.
And so, the difficulty with the current debates, according to Brooks, is that the socialist left takes a moral stance while conservatives speak only of markets, profits, consumption, and the GDP. "Average Americans are thus too often left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral left versus the materialistic right," and therefore believe that the only alternative to welfare statism "comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don't understand basic moral principles."
What, then, is the moral case for the free market? Why is it morally superior to what the left offers?
First of all, Brooks notes, our founders took a moral step away from the materialist arguments of the Englishman John Locke. Whereas Locke had maintained that "The great and chief end…of men's uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property," Thomas Jefferson "decided to focus…on the pursuit of happiness instead."
For Brooks, the "shift in emphasis away from material property and toward the pursuit of happiness was a shift from materialism to morality."
He buttresses this assertion in two ways. First, by showing that, in study after study, making more money does not make people more happy, and second, by showing in just as many studies that what actually makes people happy is "earned success."
Desperate poverty makes no one happy—that is no surprise. But researchers have found that "people in rich countries are generally not happier than people in poorer ones." Moreover, the happiest businessmen, studies reveal, are not those who make the most money, but those who own their own businesses doing what they love for often very modest amounts of money.
What is the moral point? Material prosperity is not the proper goal of economics. "Getting richer is like speeding up a treadmill: There's more activity, but you never get any closer to a goal." The same is true even if money is suddenly dumped on us without our even having to get on the treadmill. While we may all dream of winning the lottery or having money rain down on us from heavenly printing presses, neither lotteries nor indiscriminate government largesse makes anyone happy (and government largesse soon drives the country into economic ruin).
"If not money, then what do people really crave? The answer is earned success, the ability to create value with your life or in the lives of others." That may mean earning a monetary profit, "But for many, profit is measured in making beautiful art, saving people's souls, or pulling kids out of poverty."
That brings us back to economics. The proper goal of economics, of the free market, is to provide people the moral space to be entrepreneurs, to earn their success doing what they love and what is truly important. To succeed—and also to fail—by their own efforts.
It is "moral space" because the emphasis is not on material prosperity but on something that has kinship with virtue. We human beings want to see that hard, meaningful work is rewarded (or at least that it is not penalized by the government), for much the same reason that we want to see that people who struggle to become good are rewarded.
We do not want to see "moral hazard." That is, we do not want to see that it makes no difference how we act, or worse, that vice is rewarded rather than virtue—that reckless Wall Street banksters can gamble away other people's money and have the government bail them out, or that able-bodied men can milk a lifetime of benefits out of Welfare.
Both offend us morally, and rightly so. But that feeling of moral offense calls us to that deeper level that should define how we approach economics—the moral level. It reminds us that moral goodness is something that each of us must achieve; that becoming a better person, striving to be virtuous, is a task placed upon each soul. It is not something the government can or should try to achieve for us. If it does, it robs us of our moral duty and our moral achievement.
Arguing that government intrusion and collusion do far more harm than good, doesn't mean that the government should do nothing. The government must protect the real entrepreneurs against crony capitalism, the market-controlling orchestrations effected by large corporations with the aid of "purchased" congressmen. Moreover, the ties between big business and Congress must be severed. At the other end, in regard to entitlements, Brooks again follows Hayek in arguing that a social safety net is necessary for those who really can't take care of themselves.
But doing something shouldn't lead the government to try to do everything, to provide safety nets or cushy beds for corporations and for individuals who really can take care of themselves. The government shouldn't guarantee big banks against their own failures, support economic monopolies, or provide endless loopholes in the tax codes for every conceivable constituency. Nor should it be providing entitlements to those who are not truly in need. Social Security, Brooks reminds us, was not designed as a retirement plan for everybody, but a real safety net for those in old age caught in real poverty. Welfare was designed to help the truly needy, not as a multi-generational subsidy for those disinclined to work.
In short, government has a task, but it is a much smaller task than it now undertakes. Government interference should be kept to a decent minimum. Citizens must be allowed the freedom to sow (without federal subsidies for their seed), and reap what they've sown without handing most of the crop over to the government. Instead of looking to the government, we need to look to ourselves.
In saying this, Brooks is not advocating some kind of hollow individualism or egocentricism. He is actually appealing to one of the most important conservative principles of society, the principle of subsidiarity "which teaches that in order to help people thrive, matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority." Moral responsibility and economic solidity are built, first of all, on local ground, amidst our own communities.
If I might say, the appeal of Brooks is that he is appealing to Hayek, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville, rather than, or more than, Adam Smith and John Locke. That doesn't mean that that he's entirely succeeded in making a moral case for the free market, but he's at least on the right road. I strongly suggest taking up Hayek's Road to Serfdom after reading Brook's Road to Freedom, and then Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Tocqueville's Democracy in America.