National Review / Digital
The Once and Future Conventional Wisdom
How to restore common sense to the political culture


Even if Mitt Romney had squeaked through, the election of 2012 would have done nothing more than temporarily impede America’s social democratization. Romney may have wanted with all his heart to remake American government in the constitutionally limited vision of the Founders, but against the headwind of today’s conventional wisdom, he would have found it hard to do anything more than slow down the trends.

Our goal should be to establish three truths in place of the established conventional wisdom.

First, we need a fairer economy. While some redistribution will always be necessary to pay for a functioning government, fairness comes only from demanding that people earn what they possess, rewarding merit, and creating opportunity. So we must encourage the public to understand the fair society as one that militantly rejects cronyism, looks for ways to increase opportunity, and completely repudiates the notion that there is something inherently wrong with being rich. Redistribution should be undertaken with regret and apology, not self-righteous bureaucratic arrogance. Envy should be shameful.

Second, an entitlement society will ruin our country. And not just economically, but morally. An entitlement society necessitates coercive redistribution from our neighbors and our children. It steals our future and makes America undesirable for the world’s strivers. Further, it compromises a safety net meant only for the indigent and the most vulnerable, as middle-class citizens and corporations come to rely on it as well. Unearned government transfers must not be a form of income that is morally equivalent to paychecks.

Third, we do not tolerate a government that dispenses discrimination and picks winners. A good government enforces property rights and upholds the rule of law. When it intervenes in markets, it does so to establish a basic safety net for the poorest Americans, to create equal opportunity (for example, in education), and to sort out market failures when it can do so cost-effectively. The government should be the source of law and justice — not of favors, power, wealth, or prestige.

To make these truths into the new conventional wisdom will in turn require that we accomplish four things.

First, we need innovative policy ideas that embody this wisdom and help the bottom half of our economy. For example, we need an education system that serves students more and teachers less. We need to remove government impediments to starting small businesses by hacking away at onerous licensing rules and taxation. And we need an open discussion about how culture — family, community, and work — is holding back the vulnerable among us.

Second, our persuasive effort must be based in morality, not materialism. Take, for example, the policy areas just listed. Why is school innovation important? Sure, it makes students into more productive adults through better education. But the real reason is that children in the bottom income quintile in traditional school settings are frequently run through an expensive, underperforming education machine that denies them the opportunities the rest of us enjoy. That is unfair and immoral. Similarly, the barriers to entrepreneurship in today’s hyper-regulatory economy are most onerous to people at the bottom, which is an intolerable inequity. And the unwillingness of people at the top to discuss cultural patterns that hold back poor communities today is the true tyranny of the 1 percent.

Third, we must state and restate the new conventional wisdom about America. In a world where sloganeering routinely substitutes for ideas and wisdom, it is unpleasant for most of us to repeat any mantra. But there is no choice. The Americans we most need to reach are paying little attention to any individual magazine article or book. It takes communications creativity and many repetitions for an idea to become “sticky.” Today, communications are almost as important as ideas themselves. If an idea is important enough to develop, it must be important enough to promote passionately and creatively.

Finally — and most important — we have to commit to this effort for the long haul, across many political cycles. Changing culture and convention takes decades, not months. That’s a daunting commitment in an environment where “long term” generally means from now until the next midterm election. But if welfare-reform advocates had sought a quick victory, millions more Americans would still be poor today. And if free-enterprise advocates today see winning an election as the real victory, they will surely lose over the long term.

A decade or two of hard work is no time at all compared with the two centuries of American history and tradition that are at stake. Two hundred years ago, Jefferson wrote, “The last hope of human liberty in this world rests on us.” That remains true. Free enterprise is America’s blessing and its gift to the world, and it is worth fighting for today.

– Mr. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Road to Freedom.

December 17, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 23

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .