Happy Now?

June 2, 2010 05:51

What’s at stake in America’s battle over free enterprise.

Arthur Brooks at NRO

On May 13, 2009, at Arizona State University, Barack Obama delivered his first commencement address as President of the United States. At one of the most frightening economic moments in America’s history, it was a chance to be a mentor, a teacher, and the nation’s inspirer-in-chief.

Did the president urge the graduates to get out there and create the growth and jobs our country needs? Did he inspire them to be the next generation of great American innovators and entrepreneurs? No; instead, he told the graduates that people who “chase after all the usual brass rings” display “a poverty of ambition.” He averred that this thinking “has been in our culture for far too long.” He told them they could do better than trying “to be on this ‘who’s who’ list or that top 100 list.”

If you’re a free marketeer, you’ve faced this charge a thousand times: You are a materialist. Meanwhile, your progressive interlocutors are interested in the higher-order things in life — such as fairness, compassion, and equality. Your vision for America might be wealthier, but theirs is happier.

Progressives have been making this case for generations. Their reasoning is clear. When people pursue “the usual brass rings” in the free market, there are winners, and there are losers. Many people get rich; many others do not. These differences may reflect merit and they may not. But one thing is for sure: Income inequality will result. And inequality, for many progressive leaders and intellectuals, is the enemy. In their view, it leads to an unjust, unhappy, Hobbesian, all-against-all society.

A modern, compassionate society, they believe, can do better than the current system with its rising inequality. But that means employing more than soft rhetoric. We also need policies that weaken the free-enterprise system by lowering the rewards it brings to the winners as well as the consequences to the losers. As candidate Obama famously told Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher — “Joe the Plumber” — on the campaign trail in October 2008, “I think when you spread the wealth around it’s good for everybody.”


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