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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.
From there, Brooks took a more conventional route, first earning a master's degree at Florida Atlantic University and then — on the basis of some strong test scores — getting into Cornell for a Ph.D. before transferring to the respected RAND program to complete his doctorate.
To Brooks' way of thinking, immigration is tightly linked to a quintessentially American rejection of compulsion. "That's why it makes me so upset that we are creating an environment where people are not willing or able to take risks, and defining whole parts of the population as sort of this victim industrial complex, because it hurts them so much."
The American spirit, he says, is "anti-coercive. We should rebel against those who tell us what we need to do, what we must do, for the greater good of the state, or because this is the way it's always been done."
Brooks sees a link between his unconventional career and the immigrant experience. "I'm really sympathetic to people who are making their own path, to immigrants, to entrepreneurs, to people who grow up poor. I'm sympathetic to people who figure out how to design their own lives."
Pursuit of happiness
Before long, he was at Syracuse University, teaching and researching, among other things, the anatomy of happiness. Brooks is very taken with what the Declaration of Independence didn't say.
In describing the God-given rights, Jefferson borrowed from the British philosopher John Locke. But Locke's formula was "life, liberty and property." Jefferson replaced property with "the pursuit of happiness." Brooks was not the first to note the switch, but he may be the first to front it as a defense of free enterprise.
"Happiness is lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole," said noted AEI scholar Charles Murray in a February 2012 address, using a formula he ascribes to Aristotle. Discussing his own new book, "Coming Apart," Murray highlighted four domains where the "stuff of life occurs:" family, vocation, community and faith.
Murray expands community to include virtual relationships over space. And he defines vocation to include avocations, causes and hobbies. He also said that not all four domains need be occupied. "There are happy atheists, happy single people, and happy people who are not part of a community," he said.
"Arthur Brooks has called them 'institutions of meaning,'" Murray said, "a felicitous phrase that he is under the impression I invented, but I didn't, but I now purloin it, and will continue to use it forever more."
When Brooks talks about happiness, he's thinking of these four institutions. Happiness does not require material prosperity, Brooks argues. But it does require that satisfaction be justified. Brooks calls this "earned success," setting it against "learned helplessness."
"In the U.S., most people understand that the way they earn success is outside their paycheck. That's the reason that the four institutions of meaning are four institutions of prosperity and wealth. I can move ahead by seeing my kids doing great. I can move ahead by doing terrific volunteer work, or getting more deeply involved in my church, or developing my own spiritual life, or my friendship networks giving me satisfaction."
It's a curious turn of phrase Brooks often uses, which takes some getting used to. He insists that everyone should be an "entrepreneur." But he doesn't mean in the Silicon Valley sense of the word. An entrepreneur, for Brooks, is anyone who assumes risk and shows drive in any of the institutions of meaning. "A forward-looking entrepreneurial lifestyle simply doesn't have to revolve around my job. Only a materialist thinks that way," Brooks said.
A moral agenda
Brooks is a devout Catholic. When he arrived at AEI, he said, there was some "trepidation" because he and new Chairman of the Board Kevin Rollins took over on the same day. The former CEO of Dell, Rollins is a devout Mormon. The others were saying, "Are you going to put in a chapel?" Brooks joked.
Brooks keeps his faith separate from his AEI work, but it underpins all he does and demonstrates an evangelical zeal for his cause. Conservatives err, he argues, by responding to moral claims with economic or material answers. "The moral argument wins every time," Brooks said, even if it's wrong on the merits.
"The Road to Freedom" cites Friedrich Hayek, the godfather of free market economics, and echoes his "Road to Serfdom" book title. But Brooks' first reference to Hayek is not on prices or efficiency. Instead, he quotes Hayek on the need for a social safety net — which he sees as an inevitable aspect of an advanced democracy.
Hayek's position is surprising for a famously libertarian economist, but Brooks embraces it. "Conservatives get backed into the corner of thinking that they have to bridle against the safety net," he said.
Despite his embrace of the safety net, Brooks will not surrender the moral high ground to a redistributionist welfare state. Instead, he argues that well-intended policies often have disastrous effects.
"The data say that people who pay attention to these in their own lives are happiest. To the extent that people have a weaker relationship with these four institutions, this should predict some tectonic changes in American life," he said.
"Our public policies militate against the four institutions of meaning among the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution," he said, arguing that when the welfare state "inserts itself between people and their communities and churches, it lessens the need to rely on each other, lowers the incentive to marry and raise traditional families, and lowers the need to work."
According to Brooks, the welfare reform of the 1990s led to improved life satisfaction among those affected because "they reconnected to institutions of meaning."
Intergenerational loyalty is one virtue Brooks sees as threatened by government dependency. "Our happiness is tied to the people we love, and optimistic people have a time horizon that extends beyond their death. A pessimistic society stops having children. And pessimistic people stop doing things so that their children can have a better life than they do, because they don't have a sense that things last beyond themselves, or that there are things more important than themselves."4 comments on this story
"People who are dependent also don't serve others," he said, citing another marker of those who have learned dependency. "People who serve are happy, healthy and rich. There is a full corpus of research on this. Servant leadership is an empirical regulatory."
Brooks is emphatic that freedom is morally superior to dependency and that its defenders must use moral claims to win. "You have a moral obligation to be in charge of your own life," he said. "People who are not in charge of their own lives are morally bereft. And that is what is so wrong with a centralized system that makes people learn helplessness. That is why it is wrong."
Related list: The most charitable areas in Utah. Who gives the most?