Monday, June 28, 2010

Why Free Enterprise Needs a Story

Last month, Arthur C. Brooks wrote an insightful article on the new culture war. Brooks believes the new culture war in America is not about the social struggles of the last two decades--"guns, gays or abortion." The new culture war is about competing visions for America's future. Will the country return to its free enterprise, capitalist roots? Or will it continue the drift to social democracy, to statism? This question should concern every American, not just those of us who are economy-first voters. The answer will touch every aspect of our lives. Consider that, in recent years, the pace of change has quickened, with quasi-nationalized health care, financial bailouts, and government-owned car manufacturers.

Despite these changes, Americans still overwhelming support free enterprise. Brooks points to a Gallup poll describing how Americans feel about various terms describing the political economy. 86% of those polled felt positively about "free enterprise," and 61% felt positively about "capitalism." He also points to a Pew Research Study reporting that 70% of Americans believe that, generally, people are better off in a free-market economy.

Yet, if these studies are accurate, why have even liberals been wondering if we are drifting towards social democracy? To me, the problem is clear: free enterprise needs a story.

Marxists, communists, and socialists have the clear advantage here, as they can easily blend elements of ideology, mythology, and even spirituality. We've all heard the ridiculous stories about Kim Jong Il. More seriously, much scholarship has discussed the Soviet mythologies, and the Chinese are still taught glorified stories of the communist party's early days.

A principled, perhaps even moral, approach is the first step, as Brooks suggests: supporters of free enterprise "must come together around core principles: that the purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism; that we stand for equality of opportunity, not equality of income; that we seek to stimulate true prosperity rather than simply treat poverty; and that we believe in principle over power."

But the problem has never been that free enterprise and capitalism lacked proponents with a principled personal philosophy. People need stories and myth precisely because they illustrate those principles. President Obama is a master of illustrating his personal philosophy with semi-mythical American characters. Those of us who believe in free enterprise need to begin doing the same. At the very least, we need to make our beliefs more accessible because many Americans are economically illiterate.

Russ Roberts pushes in the right direction in today's Wall Street Journal, "[Friedrich] Hayek understood that the opposite of top-down collectivism was not selfishness and egotism. A free modern society is all about cooperation. We join with others to produce the goods and services we enjoy, all without top-down direction. The same is true in every sphere of activity that makes life meaningful--when we sang and when we dance, when we play and when we pray. Leaving us free to join with others as we see fit--in our work and in our play-is the road to true and lasting prosperity."

That's at least a start.