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Free Enterprise Helps Us Thrive


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When the Founding Fathers launched our great experiment in limited self government, they knew that it would be up to future generations to renew America's promise -- one of liberty, equality, natural rights, the rule of law, and free enterprise. They realized that the American experiment would be tested repeatedly, and that the people would have to possess the knowledge and the fortitude to preserve our limited representative republic.

Our nation now faces such a test, writes Arthur Brooks in his new book, The Battle. The test challenges the kind of future we want for America. Do we want to uphold the founding values of free enterprise and individual liberty? Or do we want to move toward a statist society with larger bureaucracies and more regulation and income redistribution?

President Obama has steered us toward the latter course. During his presidency, Democratic supermajorities in Washington have moved the country sharply left. At every turn, the administration has promoted more government spending, debt, regulation, and taxes as the answers to our problems. The president frequently bashes business, without regard for the consequences. As the Economist magazine recently put it, he has "all too often given the impression that capitalism is something unpleasant he found on the sole of his sneaker."

Polls consistently show that most Americans disapprove of his approach to the economy. Brooks examines numerous surveys and concludes that, "Whether we look at capitalism, taxes, business, or government, the data show a clear and consistent pattern: 70 percent of Americans support the free enterprise system and are unsupportive of big government."

So, how did a 70 percent majority come to be governed by a 30 percent minority?

Elections are usually determined by voters' desire for either change or continuity. When the housing bubble collapsed and the economy sank into a deep recession, Democrats gained traction with their "change" mantra.

The administration read the election results as a mandate for massive new intervention in the economy. And it has used the financial crisis to justify all of its controversial policy decisions. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel summed up the administration's attitude: "Never let a serious crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before."

Brooks describes the influential structure of liberal media outlets, academics, unions, Hollywood types, and activist judges that help promote President Obama's worldview. One way they do this is by redefining the lexicon of liberty. Thus, in their view, income inequality prevents Americans from enjoying their right to pursue happiness, and real equality and fairness mean equal outcomes guaranteed by the government.

That is a shallow, materialistic interpretation of the American dream. Government programs and wealth redistribution are not what make people happy and fulfilled. Earned success, optimism, and control over our own lives allow us to thrive and be happy. The real value of hard work and entrepreneurship isn't merely to attain economic growth, but to promote independence and give us a deeper purpose, or "transcendental meaning," as Brooks writes. The case for free enterprise is ultimately a moral one.

I recommend Brooks's book to anyone interested in learning more about this debate and what we -- in the 70 percent majority -- can do to emerge victorious.

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