Push back, or the real culture war, 21st-century style

A specter is haunting America -- the specter of freedom. Even as President Obama proceeds with his efforts to impoverish the country, the productive classes of society are waking from their dogmatic slumbers and banding together.

A few days ago, Arthur Brooks, the new head of the American Enterprise Institute, published a thoughtful article in The Wall Street Journal called "The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism." Here is an excerpt:

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 President 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.

The data support the protesters' concerns. In a publication with the ironic title, "A New Era of Responsibility," the president's budget office reveals average deficits of 4.7% in the five years after this recession is over. The Congressional Budget Office predicts $9.3 trillion in new debt over the coming decade.

And what investments justify our leaving this gargantuan bill for our children and grandchildren to pay? Absurdities, in the view of many -- from bailing out General Motors and the United Auto Workers to building an environmentally friendly Frisbee golf course in Austin, Texas. On behalf of corporate welfare, political largess and powerful special interests, government spending will grow continuously in the coming years as a percentage of the economy -- as will tax collections.

So what should we do about it? The first thing we need to recognize is that we are not dealing with an economic but rather with a cultural, even -- if it is not to off-putting a word -- a philosophical issue. It is an issue, that is to say, about some basic principles about how we should live our lives. Mr. Brooks notes the irony of titling Obama's monument of irresponsibility "A New Era of Responsibility." "Words must mean something," Obama said recently. But it seems pretty clear that he wants to reserve to himself the prerogatives of definition. Mr. Brooks is right that the battle we face is a battle of ideas. "Social Democrats," he writes,

are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the "sharing economy." They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools. Defenders of capitalism risk getting caught flat-footed with increasingly antiquated arguments that free enterprise is a Main Street pocketbook issue. Progressives are working relentlessly to see that it is not.

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.