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Free Enterprise, Entitlements and the Pursuit of Happiness

Last June, Values and Capitalism hosted a summer conference for students and professors from Christian colleges across the country. On the first night, the president of AEI, Arthur Brooks, framed the rest of the conference by discussing a few timeless principles. In the midst of the federal government shutdown and impending debt-ceiling debacle, these principles should be reflected upon as our country’s leaders decide whether to continue down a path of unlimited spending, or one of reform.

In his remarks, Dr. Brooks argued that earned success yields happiness—whereas the opposite of earned success, learned helplessness, engenders unhappiness. The former produces happiness because it allows individuals to utilize their potential and pursue human flourishing. Conversely, learned helplessness creates dependency and represses one’s flourishing.

[pullquote]     Government ought to create an environment where people can earn success.[/pullquote]

Brooks used the lottery as an example. A few months after claiming their prize, most winners struggle in profound ways. He argues that individuals who win the lottery do not become unhappy due to unfortunate circumstances, such as alcoholism and divorce, but that it is their unearned money that causes their unhappiness, which then leads to bad circumstances. In fact, most lottery winners become less happy than they were the day before they bought the winning ticket.

Therefore, government ought to create an environment where people can earn success. In other words, it should promote free enterprise.

But is the free enterprise system ethical? The morality of the capitalist system remains a contentiously debated topic among students at Christian colleges. Despite the ways in which capitalists are negatively portrayed—Bruce Springsteen, for example, conveys them as “greedy thieves and robber barons,” the free enterprise system has helped billions of people escape poverty.

Rather than question the morality of free enterprise, then, why don’t we question the morality of bloated entitlement and welfare programs? While these programs ideally serve the necessary role of helping those most in need, they ought to do so in a productive manner that is temporary and encourages self-sufficiency. If they do, individuals will be happier as a result of earning their success, and will be in a position to help others—just as they were helped.

In addition, welfare and entitlement programs must be managed in a fiscally responsible way, or they will cease to exist altogether. During the conference, there was a debate entitled, “Boxing Match or Beauty Contest? Faith, Serving the Poor, and Public Policy.” One of the debaters, Tim King, Director of Communications at Sojourners, argued that Congressman Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms cut programs that help the poor, because they are easy targets.

Boxing Match or Beauty Contest Panel

Following the debate, I asked Mr. King about the insolvency of some of the programs he was referring to. As wrong and immoral as it is to not help the poor, is it not just as immoral to put off necessary reforms so that they are not available for the poor in the future?

After the debate, a student and professor shared their experiences with welfare. The student shared with the group that his family accepted welfare payments while he was growing up, even though, as a family, they did not need them. A professor also admitted that he grew up in poverty, and, although his family initially needed the assistance, they soon became addicted to it; he numbed the pain using alcohol, and it wasn’t until he became terribly uncomfortable with accepting welfare that an alternative seemed better.

Rather than always looking to government for the answer, I believe we should reevaluate the ways in which we go about helping the poor. Good intentions often lead to negative and unintended consequences. Supporting free handouts from the government may make us feel good in the short run, but it is not always for the betterment of the receiver. Expanding welfare and entitlement programs beyond their proper roles fuels the expansion of government’s power and control, often keeping individuals frozen in a state of learned helplessness.

Almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that, opposed to other aristocratic societies at the time, the egalitarian nature of America affords its citizens the unique ability to pursue their own happiness. This pursuit, as explained by Dr. Brooks, is embodied in part by earned success.

So even if we concur with Springsteen on the imperfect nature of the capitalist system, we must not trash it altogether, but seek to reform it and engage it with a moral compass.  This is far preferable to government dependency, which often further debilitates the most vulnerable. This week especially, we need to trust in the proven ability of the free enterprise system, and in individuals’ ability to pursue upward mobility, if we want to ensure a happier and more prosperous future for America.