KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Culture war? Didn’t we evolve beyond such talk somewhere around a Pat Buchanan speech at a Republican convention?
ARTHUR C. BROOKS: For many, that 1992 convention speech defined the term “culture war.” But what I’m talking about is a new culture struggle — one fought not over guns, gays, and abortion but over the core characteristic of America: free enterprise. In my book I don’t just demonstrate that free enterprise is the most efficient way of organizing an economy (which it is). I also show that it’s an expression of American values, and, thus, that a fight for free enterprise is very much a fight for our culture.
LOPEZ: Has President Obama made Americans less happy? Is it even fair or reasonable or constructive to ask such a question? BROOKS: Happiness is important to discuss. The opponents of free enterprise always claim they will make America a happier nation, and we always lamely respond with arguments about economic efficiency. Yet in truth, the better prescription for happiness is on our side, not theirs.
Redistributionists always make the argument that relative income is a huge driver of unhappiness — that poorer people are unhappier than richer people simply because they have less money through no fault of their own — and thus we can get a happier, fairer society by equalizing incomes. This is based on a colossal misreading of data and a whole lot of ideology. The truth is that relative income is not directly related to happiness. Nonpartisan social-survey data clearly show that the big driver of happiness is earned success: a person’s belief that he has created value in his life or the life of others. Of course, in a capitalist system, earned success is often rewarded financially, so people who have earned a lot of success tend to have more money than others. But it’s the success, not the money, that does the trick. (We show this by comparing the happiness of people who have the same level of income but have different perceived success levels.)
The system that enables the most people to earn the most success is free enterprise, by matching up people’s skills, interests, and abilities. In contrast, redistribution simply spreads money around. Even worse, it attenuates the ability to earn success by perverting economic incentives. Free enterprise is essentially a formula not just for wealth creation, but for life satisfaction.