Arthur Brooks: Playing the Music of CapitalismPosted: July 11, 2015
To become a majority again, conservatives need to reassert the moral case for free markets
It’s not the standard route to the top job at a Beltway think tank. Then again, not much about Mr. Brooks is standard. From dropping out of college to go to Spain to play for the Barcelona City Orchestra, to earning his B.A. degree via correspondence courses from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, his life makes for an eclectic résumé.
“Our side has all the right policies. But without the music, the public hears just numbers and we have no resonance.”
Today he boasts a Ph.D. from the RAND Graduate School and enjoys an honored spot in the capital’s intellectual firmament. But the horn still defines how he sees the world.
“We don’t need to write an opera about free enterprise to reach people. But it’s not a bad idea.”
“The French horn is the harmonic backbone of the orchestra,” Mr. Brooks says. “The physics are tricky. It’s as long as a tuba but with a mouthpiece as small as a trumpet’s. This gives the French horn its characteristic mellow sound but also makes it easy to miss notes. The metaphors here form themselves.”
Indeed they do. Not least because think tanks have distinct personalities in addition to their politics.
“The liberation of hundreds of millions from desperate poverty ranks among the greatest success stories in history. But it’s a story that remains largely untold and mostly unheralded.”
The libertarian Cato Institute, for example, looks as though it had been designed by Howard Roark, the hero architect of Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead.” The Liberty Bell on the Heritage Foundation logo evokes a classic conservatism rooted in the American founding. The clean modernist lines of the Brookings Institution suggest its faith in good, rational government.
“Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.”
In Mr. Brooks’s hands, AEI has beome an orchestra. Sure, it is sometimes labeled “neocon” (almost always deployed as a pejorative) because of the home it provides for former George W. Bush administration officials such as John Bolton and
Paul Wolfowitz, not to mention scholars such as Fred Kagan who write on military matters. These people are all vital to AEI, but they are only part of a larger ensemble.
“Our side has all the right policies,” Mr. Brooks says. “But without the music, the public hears just numbers and we have no resonance.”
“We need to know Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ as well as we do the Adam Smith who wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ Because when you do, you begin to understand we are hard-wired for freedom by the same Creator who gave us our unalienable rights.”
He is speaking over lunch in his corner office overlooking 17th and M streets in northwest Washington, D.C. The office isn’t standard-issue, either.
[Read the full text here, at WSJ]
The walls are bereft of the signed photos and tributes from presidents, senators and other pooh-bahs that are de riguer for the capital’s movers and shakers. The largest piece in the room is a poster featuring José Tomás, Spain’s greatest bullfighter. Mr. Brooks once saw him in the ring. “A true master artist,” he says.
The other poster is from the Soviet Union circa 1964. It features two workers. One is a drunk scratching his head as he looks at the one-ruble note in his hand. The other is a hale-and-hearty type proudly looking at the 10 rubles he has earned. The caption: “Work more, earn more.”
“It was part of a public-information campaign to raise productivity by paying people more,” Mr. Brooks says. It’s the sort of irony he loves, a confirmation of basic market wisdom—courtesy of communist propaganda.
In some ways, the Soviet poster serves the great AEI mission that began with its founding in New York in 1938: to cultivate “a greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise.”
While the mission remains unchanged, Mr. Brooks believes his obligation goes far beyond the production of academic tomes. These have their place, but if the champions of free markets hope to sell the message to those who aren’t already sold, he says they need to speak to the heart as much as to the head…(read more)
Mr. McGurn is a Journal columnist and a member of the editorial board.
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