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The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise

Of course, Brooks notes, the Founders did not promise happiness, only the right to its pursuit. And few things are as satisfying as earned success. Mere possession does not equal that, whether it’s via lottery winnings, inherited wealth, or a government check.

Brooks points out that Ronald Reagan framed his defense of free enterprise in both moral and practical arguments. More recently, the case for welfare reform was presented primarily as a moral imperative, not as a budget-saving measure.

But perhaps the most startling challenge Brooks makes to the would-be defenders of liberty is that they stop sneering at the idea of “fairness.”  Even economist Milton Friedman — whose monumental Free to Choose combined the moral, American spirit element of free enterprise along with the practical arguments to make its case — famously dismissed that notion, stating, “’Fairness’ like ‘needs’ is in the eye of the beholder.’”

But Brooks considers this to be a colossal mistake.  Fairness, he says, is a “central fact of life and hugely important to everybody.”

In fact, there is nothing fairer than the merit-based system of free enterprise; the problem is its opponents really have no idea just how fair it is. They don’t want fairness — they want equality, even if it’s by force.

A moral system requires fairness. A fair system in an opportunity society rewards merit. In contrast, an unfair system redistributes resources simply to derive greater income equality. …

When I work harder or longer hours in the free enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards.  Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a politburo, but rather by large groups of citizens in the marketplace.  True fairness makes free enterprise not just an economic alternative. It makes it a moral imperative.

Two bits of evidence that this argument works with Americans still on their way up the economic ladder (and they view themselves as being on that journey) come from George McGovern famously being booed after promising low-income workers he would raise estate taxes and give them the money. To this day — even after the “death tax” has been lowered to the point that it doesn’t even affect all of the mythical “1%” —  the vast majority of Americans hate the levy as being unfair to tax someone for dying.

Of course, like all authors who deal with economics, Brooks can’t resist proving his thesis by bringing in materialistic arguments. The most important of which is the point that, while helping the poor most often is the posited reason to restrict and tax free enterprise, capitalism has lifted the poor to levels unimagined 200 years ago. Despite politically correct history texts and the criticisms of Charles Dickens, the poor were the primary beneficiaries of the industrial revolution.

Books like this are generally compared to works by such popular gurus of economics as Friedman and Henry Hazlitt, and because of the book’s title, Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom likely will come to mind for many.

But I would put this brief more in a class with the late, great James Q. Wilson, who — no matter what social phenomenon he examined, from the law to the nature of bureaucracy to marriage — always did so in the light of the “Moral Sense.”

It’s hard to imagine a timelier book, but I predict The Road to Freedom will stand the test and be a reference point for defenders of liberty for a long, long time.

See Also: Glenn Reynolds interviews Brooks at PJTV.