With the election coming up, many people believe that the stakes for our country are as big as they have ever been. A large number of Americans believe that the first term of the Obama Administration has ushered in a new era of expansionist government, resulting in what Friedrich A. Hayek wrote about in The Road to Serfdom. Some wish to reverse this reckless expansion, and thus Arthur C. Brooks has written The Road to Freedom.
How did a man who aspired to be a professional French horn player come to write a book like this? Not very easily, as it turns out. After abandoning his musical ambitions, he began a career generally considered unlikely to launch an anti-left persona – he became an academic. He reached national attention with the 2006 publication of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, which argued that conservatives are really the compassionate individuals that liberals only claim to be. In 2008, Brooks became president of the American Enterprise Institute, a position that has given him a major megaphone with which to communicate his views.
The Road to Freedom is a succinct explanation of how Americans favoring an opportunity society can regain power in 2012. Brooks told me that conservatives have the correct message, but they are not communicating it in the best manner. Consequently, they often lose the battle because they frame their arguments poorly, resulting in an ineffective case for their views. He believes that conservatives need to focus on the message of a free society, and must express in clear, concise language (as he does in his book) that “freedom is not provided by governmental programs.”
If there is an argument to be made, the next question is who has been the best at conveying that argument? Brooks first mentions William F. Buckley, who in his opinion started the free enterprise discussion, and then shifts to Barry Goldwater and Friedrich Hayek. When asked who is presently best at arguing for economic liberty, Brooks answered without hesitation – Congressman Paul Ryan. As Brooks says “He has a visionary point of view.”
Brooks cites the welfare reform movement of the 1990’s as an example of a victory for clarity of the argument. A Democratic president signed the reform which has had a significant and lasting effect on government dependency.
As an example of what we must now argue against on moral grounds, Brooks proposes that it is wrong to deficit spend. He also suggests that we should make the moral case against crony capitalism.
Then he proposes something refreshing. He states that conservatives have abdicated the issue of fairness to the liberals. With President Obama leading the way, liberals constantly use the notion of “fairness” to argue for higher taxes on our most productive citizens. Obama knows that he can’t argue the facts, since high-earning individuals already pay a disproportionate share of their income, along with much of the overall tax burden. Brooks, however, maintains that the issue of fairness really belongs to conservatives, pointing out that while only 11% of Americans favor redistribution, 89% defend a meritocracy. He claims that if the left is winning the fairness argument, it’s because the right isn’t in the game.
Seeing that this was such an effective argument, I thought that I would try it out. I recently met with Todd Zink, a Republican candidate for the California State Senate. Zink, who was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Marines, is a political novice, and when I suggested that he should use the fairness argument in his campaign, his eyes lit up. I suggested he should say that it is unfair for Democrats to raise taxes while ordinary Californians are working hard and struggling to make ends meet. It is unfair for public employees to have cushy pensions after 20 or 25 years while the ordinary taxpayer has to work for 40 years for a far more meager retirement. It’s not fair that 47% of Americans pay no federal income taxes at all. And it’s not fair to urban black parents for their children to be stuck in poorly performing schools without the choice of going elsewhere. Ultimately it is how you frame the issue, and Brooks is correct.
Brooks’ book is filled with great ideas to help conservatives frame the debate and win the day. In the competitive world of politics, we all need to improve our delivery, and Dr. Brooks with his book is here to help.