Jefferson and the Culture War on Business

WHICH WHITE MAN SAID WHAT?Throughout its colorful career, the Republican coalition has straddled a gaping contradiction, plying a governing agenda that benefits a tiny economic elite while energizing a lower-class electoral base with the raging pseudopopulist cant of the culture wars. This neat trick will no doubt rank alongside the legacies of John Law and Milli Vanilli in the annals of Western fraudulence-but in the meantime, Arthur C. Brooks has sought heroically to seize both horns of this dilemma outright, declaring in the reliably nutty opinion pages of the Washington Post that the United States is now suffering from a grievous culture war on business.

His lamentation, like many such broadsides, bears all sorts of inadvertent evidence that openly contradicts the virtues he claims for his own culture-war battalion: “limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces.” Brooks, you see, is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and famously engineered the dismissal of AEI fellow David Frum for the unpardonable thoughtcrime of wondering aloud of shrill Republican rejectionism in the health care debate was really all that smart.

That bit of intellectual hygiene left the conservative think tank with a roster of scholars including renowned torture advocate John Yoo, casual racist and ardent libertarian Charles Murray, dishonest warmongers Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, staple-hurling scourge of diplomatic internationalism John R. Bolton (a man so manifestly unhinged that George W. Bush himself declared he wasn’t credible, even though that realization unfortunately came after Bush appointed Bolton as interim ambassador to the U.N.), and former SLOTUS Lynne Cheney, who knows a thing or two about culture warfare.

In other words, any quest for evidence of impartial, market-mediated reward for genuine achievement would lead investigators quite far afield from AEI’s downtown Washington office. Nor would the delivery system involved in Brooks’ call to arms inspire much confidence in a free marketplace of ideas-the offering is repurposed from his extended op-ed of a book, The Battle, which, what do you know, publishes this week. If nothing else, its prominent placement should be good for a few expensed lunches at the Palm for AEI’s other prominent torture-apologist “scholar,” Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen.


But we digress, sort of. What is the ominous gathering of irreconcilable cultural beliefs that Brooks descries standing at Armageddon? Well, on the side of the angels, of course, are the champions of the market, who virtuously uphold “a culture where individuals are willing to innovate and exert leadership; where people enjoy the rewards and face the consequences of their decisions; and where we can gamble the security of the status quo for a chance at future success.” And since in the age of Glenn Beck every conservative shibboleth must be branded with sentiment of some Founder or another, Brooks cites the authority of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that contriving to redistribute the fruits of an American citizen’s labor is “to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” The indispensable lesson from the sage of Monticello, Brooks writes, is “beware government’s economic control, and woe betide the redistributors.”

Against this sage dictum, of course, is the insane leveling spirit of Barack Obama, who in a commencement address at Arizona State University, betook it on himself to warn the graduates of the intangible costs of a culture of overweening personal ambition that measures success “through material possessions, through a ruthless competition pursued only on your behalf.” Such blinkered pursuit of riches and renown, the president warned in an anodyne aside entirely typical of the commencement genre, “may lead you to compromise you values and your principles.”

For Arthur Brooks, though, this means war-it is an unwholesome, un-American thing “for the president of the United States to actively warn young adults away from economic ambition.” Never mind this is also an American president who has repeatedly proclaimed “I love the market“-and has proven his love by rewarding senior economic posts to the bailout-happy likes of Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers. The health-care bill may largely replicate the plan that the GOP touted in 1993 as the alternative to the purported federal over-reach of ClintonCare-and indeed, enacted in Massachusetts under the leadership of the GOP’s would-be 2012 standard bearer Mitt Romney in 2005. But in Brooks’ judgment, that entitlement, combined with the Senate’s just-passed financial reform (despite its gaping end-user loopholes), mean that this ambition-killing liberal regime may well ensure that “America will cease to be a free-enterprise nation.”

Nonsensically, our think-tank leader plunges on, maintaining that the sinister federal foes of entrepreneurship–while aligned with the mere 30 percent of the public who express qualms about the market’s sovereignty–were able to exploit the 2008 collapse of the economy to erect “a full and compelling narrative” empowering “statists” to seize the reins of power. To challenge this notion, the besieged conservative majority needs to shift the economic debate onto the field of culture battle, and link the present peril to the case for “the third unalienable right set out in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.” Then the lines of conflict-and the path to sure victory-become stark and simple, Brooks writes: “Free enterprise brings happiness; redistribution does not. The reason is that only free enterprise brings earned success.”

It’s the redistributionists who are the crass materialists in this battle, Brooks insists; earned success, in addition to fueling the heroic individualist accumulation of wealth, is an all-purpose spiritual elixir: It “is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.”

Phew. Where to begin? Well, to stick to empirical measures of a culture’s well-being, Brooks has the argument precisely wrong, as British epidemiologists Richard Wilksonson and Kate Pickett demonstrate in The Spirit Level. That study examines a host of social indicators of happiness, from teen pregnancy to mental illness to rates of violent crime across developed economies, and consistently finds that countries with robust welfare states, such as Sweden and Japan, produce dramatically greater quality of life benefits for their citizens than individualist social orders like the United States and the post-Thatcher United Kingdom. Oh, and artists also tend to fare better in such societies, if for no other reason that they are less frequently driven to hold on to sucky day jobs for the sake of health insurance. If they were in fact anything like a politically viable force in these United States, redistributionist liberals would be beside themselves with glee to see the debate over economic equality shift onto these grounds.

They would likewise cheerfully endorse Brooks’ proposal at the level of political strategy, since he sees the moral case for the free market’s dominance organically taking hold of the “disorganized, grass-roots” vindication of the true American character via the tea party movement-even going so far as to hail “Rand Paul’s triumph in Kentucky’s Republican primary last week” as one of the signal encouraging “warning shots in the burgeoning culture war.” Brooks’ imaginary New Model Army of Europe-besotted statist liberals might well agree-with the proviso that the artillery was firing its reports in Paul’s own face.

Brooks, alas, also might have been a little more careful in selecting a Founder to use as a rhetorical cudgel against the paternalist leftists he imagines seizing the culture-war offensive. Jefferson, after all, wrote to James Madison apropos of the egalitarian farmers’ revolt in western Massachusetts known as Shay’s Rebellion, that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” and “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” And while Jefferson did indeed hail the yeoman virtues of small-scale proprietorship-the alternative at the time being, you know, monarchy-he was also implacably committed to preventing its upward concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. In another letter to Madison from France, he noted the penury of the common worker under Louis XVI, and observed that “I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”

He even went on to propose the very remedy for inequality that Brooks dismisses as a perverse enterprise-killing statism in Obama’s hands-a more steeply graduated progressive tax system:

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed.

Though, for my money, I’ve always preferred the rule of thumb Tom Paine offered, when he argued to decouple the voting franchise from the requirement of property holding:

Wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it.

On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a criterion also.

Please, oh please, if there ever actually is a business culture war can we have it be about this?

Chris Lehmann will now receive a promotion in his battalion of the culture wars.