American Enterprise Institute
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When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was ready to unveil his controversial 2011 budget, he chose the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., as his venue. In 2012, he did an encore budget, again announced at AEI.
Long considered a bastion of free market economics and neo-conservative foreign policy, AEI helped populate the George W. Bush White House, with more than 20 AEI scholars serving in Cabinet or commission positions. And the think tank seems poised to play a similar role in a possible Romney administration.
But while AEI, with its large stable of scholars and $25 million budget, keeps its focus on economics and foreign policy, Arthur Brooks, its energetic president, talks more of morality and happiness. It's a rhetorical difference that is having a strong impact on the right flank of national policy discourse.
"Brooks is a visionary, and he understands how to talk to people," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "When we talk about limited government based on the notion of economic freedom, many of us delve into bean counting or spreadsheets. But Brooks talks about the moral case for free enterprise. I look to Brooks as the leader in delineating this debate."
Brooks is currently on the road promoting his new book, "The Road to Freedom," in which he argues that the American model of free enterprise is morally superior to the statist alternatives, largely because it allows people to experience "earned success" rather than "learned helplessness."
The core of Brooks' argument is that economic liberty is not about numbers and wealth, but about human dignity and happiness. "It's a seamless garment," he said.
Immigrating to America
Brooks drove a wide detour on his way to AEI, a path that both illustrates and helped to spark his subsequent thinking on liberty and happiness.
Not long ago, Brooks was a professional musician nestled in a Spanish symphony. He stunned his Seattle-based father one day on the phone when he announced that he was leaving his successful music career to go to graduate school in public policy and economics. "Why?" he asked. "Because I'm not happy," Brooks responded. A moment of silence followed. "What makes you so special?" his father asked.
Already an established maverick, Brooks had dropped out of college at 19, toured Europe playing the French horn, and then, pursuing his future Spanish wife, landed a full-time job with the Barcelona Orchestra.
It was his wife who pushed him to leave Spain. Seeing that he was stymied and unsatisfied, she told him, "You've got to make a change." Together they immigrated to Florida from Spain, and his wife got a job teaching English to other immigrants. He taught music during the day, studying economics at night.
With an immigrant wife and an immigrant child (their third, adopted from China), Brooks is a passionate supporter of immigration. "There is nothing that irritates me more than people who are hostile to immigrants. It's profoundly un-American."
"Those are the heroes, the people we want to hold up as exemplars, the risk takers — not taking risk to get rich, taking risk to pursue their happiness," he said. "Immigration is the ultimate change. I'm going to go to another country, even though I don't know anybody, don't speak the language and don't have any money — because that's what I want to do."
Brooks' first college degree was do-it-yourself, with distance learning from all over. His bachelor's degree is from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. "But I've never been there," Brooks said. "It was really more of a credit bank for me, and they were very good about transferring credits." In essence, Brooks taught himself economics.
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