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The American Project and Earned Success

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own … If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” In case you missed it among the mosh pit of recent headlines, the quote above is a sound bite of a statement made by President Obama last Friday in Virginia. With those words the president resupplied the Romney campaign with weeks’ worth of ammunition. But he also drew a hard line in the sand. American entrepreneurship, a cornerstone of our society and of the free market, has left the cloak-and-dagger, back alleys of politics and is now on the front lines of an open battle for the American spirit. In a recent interview with the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, AEI president Arthur Brooks responded to Obama’s comments, suggesting “that [Obama] celebrate the accomplishments of entrepreneurs from all walks of life and try to create an environment where we can get more of them through a truly fair economy that rewards merit and creates opportunity — a society that builds more mobility.” Along the same line of thought, Brooks’s book, “The Road to Freedom,” is the product of a moral conviction, confirmed by heaps of data, that the free market best encourages those values which are necessary to both a flourishing economy and society. Brooks removes his arguments from idealistic banter by locating his conclusions on a foundation of strong scholarship. Governments, he argues, have a moral obligation to encourage those systems which best aid the impoverished and which uphold the rights of the individual. The burden, however, does not rest on the state alone. It is the duty of a people to hold their governments accountable to efficient and effective management while also assuming personal responsibility for the basic well-being of themselves and their communities. Earned success cannot be underestimated. “The Road to Freedom” cites a 2001 survey conducted by an Ohio State University research team, which found that working individuals who “did not feel responsible for their own successes spent about 25 percent more of their day feeling sad than those who said they felt they were responsible. This was true whether they were materially prosperous or not.” To put it succinctly, the free market does not hinge upon a single piece of hardware. The pursuit of happiness, a necessary but insufficient pillar of the American project, returns the best results when tempered with the equally important virtues of productivity and justice. As nearly 70 percent of American families are currently receiving more money from the government than they are paying in taxes, it becomes clear that reform is in order. And the answer is not to discourage the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people. The state has a moral obligation, in the long-term interest of its people, to reestablish an assumption of personal responsibility and self-improvement. Accordingly, our governing administration cannot continue its course of entrenched entitlement and open-ended promises. In this light, an appaling recent study from the Congressional Budget Office, shows that one in seven of Americans are currently receiving food stamps and that Medicare costs alone are approaching 5.9% of our national GDP. As Brooks says in “The Road to Freedom,” the over-indulgence of such programs removes “any incentive for people to live within a budget. Predictably, nobody does.” This is not to say that the government should not lend a helping hand to the truly destitute; in fact, Brooks acknowledges the need for a social safety net and supports state action in cases of emergency. Still, in situations in which government allows the private sector to meet the needs of its communities we observe telling results: The poor are more effectively cared for; economic stability is sustained; and those who bring about their own success are considerably happier. As President Obama’s rhetoric goes more and more on the offensive, keep an ear out for direct attacks against capitalism. The free market system is in need of an articulate, holistic offense. Brooks provides just that. While many scholars solely highlight the economic benefits of free enterprise, Brooks ushers a much-needed moral argument to the forefront of discussion. “The Road to Freedom” presents both a well-supported case for the free market and an important reminder that an administration which discourages earned success and entrepreneurial ambition also abandons its people to learned helplessness.