The Corner

The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks has an energizing piece in the Wall Street Journal about today’s true culture war. The fight, he says, is and will be over capitalism.

There is a major cultural schism developing in America. But it’s not over abortion, same-sex marriage or home schooling, as important as these issues are. The new divide centers on free enterprise — the principle at the core of American culture.

Despite Pres. Barack Obama’s early personal popularity, we can see the beginnings of this schism in the “tea parties” that have sprung up around the country. In these grass-roots protests, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans have joined together to make public their opposition to government deficits, unaccountable bureaucratic power, and a sense that the government is too willing to prop up those who engaged in corporate malfeasance and mortgage fraud.

Sure, Brooks explains, people are upset about the deficit and staggering budget data. But that’s not it. In fact, that’s only a small piece of it.

Still, the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

Voices in the media, academia, and the government will dismiss this ethical populism as a fringe movement — maybe even dangerous extremism. In truth, free markets, limited government, and entrepreneurship are still a majoritarian taste. In March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked people if we are better off “in a free market economy even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time.” Fully 70% agreed, versus 20% who disagreed.

And while free enterprise is still culturally mainstream, Brooks claims, it has taken a serious hit in the last few years. His recommendation:

Advocates of free enterprise must learn from the growing grass-roots protests, and make the moral case for freedom and entrepreneurship. They have to declare that it is a moral issue to confiscate more income from the minority simply because the government can. It’s also a moral issue to lower the rewards for entrepreneurial success, and to spend what we don’t have without regard for our children’s future.

Enterprise defenders also have to define “fairness” as protecting merit and freedom. This is more intuitively appealing to Americans than anything involving forced redistribution. Take public attitudes toward the estate tax, which only a few (who leave estates in the millions of dollars) will ever pay, but which two-thirds of Americans believe is “not fair at all,” according to a 2009 Harris poll. Millions of ordinary citizens believe it is unfair for the government to be predatory — even if the prey are wealthy.

Read the whole thing here.

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