There has been a changing of the guard at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Arthur Brooks has left, after ten superb years as president. Robert Doar has come in. I wish him and his team the best. In my view, AEI is more important than ever. I realize this is a cliché — “more important than ever” — but it is sometimes true.
Free enterprise is highly important, and it is perpetually under attack: from the left, sure, but also from the right, and especially now. Nationalism and populism are high in the saddle. A free economy is a scapegoat for the ills of society. From where I sit, free enterprise has fewer and fewer friends, which is, among other things, unjust: because free enterprise is a great friend to people everywhere, whether they know it or not.
“Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, you know!” I hear this from the Trump-Buchanan Right, and I do not need to be told. Sadly, I seem to lack an entrepreneurial spark. I was not the kind of kid who opens a lemonade stand. So far, I have been pretty much a wage-eater, to use a chilling term I learned from John Derbyshire, many years ago. WFB had the wit and wherewithal to found National Review in 1955. Thank goodness.
We need entrepreneurs for goods and services — all those things we enjoy (and probably take for granted). We need them for jobs. It’s hard to have employment without an employer. And not everyone can work for the government (or should). We need entrepreneurs for dynamism, for prosperity, for general societal well-being. In a world of risk-averse people — and I should look in the mirror — we need risk-takers.
Back to this business of societal well-being: Isn’t culture important too? And rectitude? Oh, yes, indispensably so. But if you do without free enterprise — you do without a lot. Moreover, enterprise has long been part of Anglo-American culture, and attractive to people — not everybody, obviously — the world over.
Fifteen years ago, there was a movie called “A Day without a Mexican.” (Conservatives as a rule did not like it, but that’s another subject.) A day without entrepreneurs? Or a week or a month? We would be crying in pain — and entrepreneurs would be more appreciated than ever.
Say you like factory jobs, and want to see their return in big numbers. Okay. Who’s going to build the factories? Who’s going to take the risks and meet the payrolls?
I doubt that, in the 2020 presidential cycle, anyone will defend free enterprise. I think Carly Fiorina was the last to do it, in a bold, unblushing way. Free enterprise is uncool now. (So is liberal democracy, which is related.) Its defenders are back on their heels, called “globalists,” “cosmopolitans,” or worse. But there are free-enterprisers out there. I hear from them. Generally, they are not the kind to tweet or “comment.” They are a little shy just now. But I hope they will find their confidence.
Leadership matters, as we know. This was a subject at dinner last night. I was talking to a young man of the old faith: the classical-liberal faith. “No one is talking about the debt or the deficit,” he said. “No one is talking about the looming entitlement crisis.” So true. That is kicked down the road, endlessly, by one and all, and will be, until we ourselves are kicked, hard.
Say you have termites in your house. You may not talk about them — but your silence is not going to make them go away. You have to tackle them. And until you do, they gnaw . . .
“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher, and sooner or later they reassert themselves — which is good.
I have written an elementary post, probably too elementary. But I think of two things. First, an old, best-selling book: All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Second, an old song: “The fundamental things apply . . .”