A Culture War of Attrition

Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, writes in today's Wall St. Journal that "The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism."

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. [bold added]

Brooks describes the road to socialism the Left is pushing the country down, after the Right did much the same over the past decade by paying "little more than lip service to free enterprise." He notes that under Obama's tax plan, nearly 50% of Americans will have little or no tax liability, and instead will benefit from massive redistribution of wealth.
Social Democrats 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. [bold added]
This is simply an extension of the way the country has been trending for a century, but naming the real culture war as one between capitalism and socialism? Well, it is heartening to see in the mainstream media, even if it is an op-ed. And we are certainly in a war of attrition, being waged on all fronts in the culture.

Seizing the issue of the tea parties and the grassroots opposition they represent, Brooks names what Objectivists have been saying and acting on for years; that this is a moral issue and to win the fight, it must be framed as such.
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. [bold added]
Brooks is right, as far as he goes. But sadly, he doesn't make such a moral case, and simply states that it is a moral issue as if what constitutes the moral and immoral is self-evident. If I were not an Objectivist, I might read the op-ed and tend to agree with him about "freedom and entrepreneurship" or I might tend to disagree with him and like the track the country is on now. Nothing he says would help me to see why I should side one way or another, and I would be left relying on my predispositions.

But because Objectivism shows that the moral case is one of defending individual rights and the freedom of individuals to act in their own rational self-interest, and that any coercive government action that infringes on those rights in any way is immoral, it can do more than appeal to the default American sense-of-life or the groundswell of "tea party sentiment."

Brooks' attempt to give the proper grounding for the fight against socialism is appreciated, but until those who support fully free market capitalism can defend their position from the appropriate philosophical base, they will ultimately be susceptible to the same arguments that have been used in the 100 year cultural war of attrition. When defenders of the free market accept that the war between capitalism and socialism is in truth the battle between egoism and altruism, between life and death, and are willing to fight for individual rights consistently and proudly, then and only then will they be able to present a convincing moral case.

Brooks recognizes the role such defenders have, saying "intellectual organizations like my own have a constructive role in the coming cultural conflict. As policymakers offer a redistributionist future to a fearful nation and a new culture war simmers, we must respond with tangible, enterprise-oriented policy alternatives." As I have mentioned previously, George Reisman has a lot to say on this topic. As an introduction to a set of proposals for how to bring about capitalism over the course of time, he said:
Instead of merely attacking the socialistic proposals of the "liberals" and then yielding to them and abandoning the fight once the proposals happened to be enacted, as is the almost invariable practice of the conservatives, they would always strive to move in the direction of capitalism. ...

The program ... to follow is both political and educational in nature. It is political in that it centers on the offering of specific political proposals, which, if adopted, would move the country toward capitalism. It is educational in that it views the basic problem that we face as one of explaining to the people of the United States and other countries the value of a capitalist society and the value of the specific steps required to achieve it. What people do is determined by what they think. If we want to change the political practice, there is no other way but to change people's political philosophy and economic theories. Accordingly, every political proposal that I suggest is itself intended to serve as a vehicle for educating the public and for attracting talented individuals to our cause who in turn will become capable of educating still others to the value of our program. ...

The political proposals I make are short- and intermediate-range, as well as long-range in nature. I believe that it will take several generations to achieve a fully capitalist society, mainly because of the time required for the educational process. It will not be enough just to present our long-range goals. It will be necessary to advocate a whole intervening series of short- and intermediate-range goals whose enactment will represent progress toward our long-range goals. The major political task in the years ahead will be continuously to formulate such short and intermediate range goals, and to keep the country moving in the direction of full capitalism by means of their successive achievement. The short- and intermediate-range goals I offer are intended to illustrate principles of strategy and tactics and thus to serve as a pattern.

In the light of the preceding, it should scarcely be necessary to say that at no time should the advocacy of sound principles be sacrificed to notions of political expediency, advanced under misguided ideas about what is "practical." The only practical course is to name and defend true principles and then seek to win over public opinion to the support of such principles. It is never to accept the untrue principles that guide public opinion at the moment and design and advocate programs that pander to the errors of the public. Such a procedure is to abandon the fight for any fundamental or significant change--namely, a change in people's ideas--and to reinforce the errors we want to combat. [bold added]
There is nothing wrong with taking intermediate, even small, steps toward laissez-faire, as long as no ground is conceded the other way, and it is stated explicitly and repeatedly that laissez-faire is the ultimate goal. So as long as Brooks and organizations like AEI put forth policy alternatives that meet this standard, they will be supporting the good fight. Even if they don't fully meet the standard, they can be a good starting point which prominent Objectivist intellectuals can use to provide the philosophical foundation needed.

Such is the promise of the "tea parties"; the opportunity to give those who still hold the American sense-of-life, the intellectual ammunition to stand up for capitalism, and thereby stand up for themselves.

Update: Added longer Reisman quote and other edits. (04/30/09)


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "When defenders of the free market accept that the war between capitalism and socialism is in truth the battle between egoism and altruism . . . then and only then will they be able to present a convincing moral case."

For your analysis, bravo! Any conservative or libertarian who says he is for "free enterprise" must be willing to base it first in political principle (government should serve only to protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property. Then, as you said, they should be willing to side explicitly with the ethics of rational egoism as part of the root of individual rights.

That is one test of supporters of "free enterprise." Another one is metaphysical, that is, it deals with the basic nature of reality from which the concept "rights" can be drawn. The test is to ask this: What is the source of rights?

If the answer is, e.g., "God," and not man's nature, then one knows that this supporter of "free enterprise" sees capitalism as a floating abstraction, one that has no tie to reality -- and thus can never be implemented. "God-given rights" is what I hear from conservatives -- who naturally do not support a free market despite all their rhetoric.

Thank you for your analysis.

C. August said...

>"this supporter of "free enterprise" sees capitalism as a floating abstraction, one that has no tie to reality..."

I don't know enough about Brooks or the American Enterprise Institute to say definitively, but I suspect they fall under this category, at least organizationally. (Individual scholars who contribute may not.) One point of note is that they published a monograph by Cass Sunstein that describes his view on regulating speech so that "group polarization" and "extremism" do not occur. As you said in a comment on another post, Rand identified "polarization" as an anti-concept.

By the way, I just updated the post to include a longer quotation from Reisman because it so aptly described what a "constructive role in the coming cultural conflict" would be.

Foxwood said...

If you've been properly indoctrinated, Obama is the greatest President in US history. If your of traditional American moral values, our country is in a sorry state.

C. August said...

Foxwood, what is your conception of traditional American moral values? As I have argued and Burgess discussed, it has less to do with tradition than "the basic nature of reality from which the concept "rights" can be drawn" as Burgess said.

This means the morality of rational egoism as the basis of capitalism, as opposed to the morality of sacrifice, altruism, and its demands to sacrifice to the state in the form of socialism, or to one's fellow man in the form of religion and religious theocracy.

Anonymous said...

Its the rare conservative that would offer something other than God, faith, traditions and traditional morality as the basis of their defense of whatever it is they mean by freedom and free enterprise. The more I read of conservative literature the more I become convinced that conservatism is at root a religious movement. While there may be secular conservatives there is no secular conservatism.

Some conservatives will be better if they are more influenced by Classical Liberal thought but even there few if any conservatives will offer a defense of rights and limited government based on a rational secularism. And the secular conservatives themselves like John Derbyshire are typically skeptics and materialists (in the bad sense; ie evolutionary determinists). I really don't see any hope for the conservative movement.

As for Reisman, I have been reading the back posts at his blog and rereading sections of 'Capitalism'. He really is a powerful intellectual. Its a shame he is no longer connected with ARI.


C. August said...

Madmax, I fully agree with you about the assessment of conservatism in general. You mentioned Derbyshire, who I'm not familiar with, but I know Jay Severin. He is in the Pat Buchanan mold, though without the overt Christianity, and while he can give some superficially good defenses of the issues that Objectivists would give (name one... there are many) he NEVER mentions individual rights. To his benefit, he does not use God in every argument. But he doesn't fill the moral void with anything. He does what Brooks does in the WSJ article. It's supposedly self-evident that the moral case is on the side of individual rights? Or, more precisely, whatever the founders thought, regardless of where their thought came from?

Regardless, Severin, Brooks, and based on what you said Derbyshire, are the best that conservatism can offer. It's not nearly enough. They simply refuse to embrace rational egoism. They sense that there is a moral argument to be made, but they can't make it.

Regarding Reisman, I fully agree with you. I have a heavily dogeared copy of "Government Against The Economy" in my library, and I hope to add to it -- when I can afford it -- a copy of his treatise on capitalism. Just the last chapter which he has made available for printing on his website is basically the blueprint for how we could pursue a capitalist agenda in the current political climate. When I re-read parts of it, I get fired up all over again. It is inspirational. The fact that he was forced out of ARI long ago is indeed a shame. ARI is doing great work, and the general movement would benefit greatly from a voice as powerful as Reisman's being brought back into the fold.

Rome sent Scipio to Spain to attack Carthaginian forces. Ultimately, Rome realized it needed its brilliant general on the real front lines to defeat Hannibal himself, and drew him back into the main battle. Scipio dealt Hannibal his first and only loss, thus saving Rome. We would do well to heed this historical lesson.

madmax said...


We're in total agreement.

Regarding the great Scipio Aficanus, if you want to read a *really* good book on that subject I strongly recommend 'Scipio Africanus Greater Than Napoleon' by B.H. Liddell Hart. Many Roman senators out of spite and envy wanted to *prevent* Scipio from mounting his legendary counter-invasion of North Africa. He did it largely on his own initiative. Hannibal invaded Italy with 80,000 men, Scipio invaded Carthage with only 20,000 and no elephants!

If we lived in a healthy culture, Hollywood would have made at least a dozen movie versions of the 2nd Punic War by now and all of them glorifying Scipio. If Hollywood ever does get around to it you can rest assured that Scipio will be marginalized and minimized or worse.

Lastly, while Objectivism needs the intellectuals, I have always thought that at some point the movement is going to need its own version of a Scipio Africanus when the time is right.


C. August said...

Thanks for the book recommendation and the historical context. I'll definitely look that one up.

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