Review of ‘The Battle’

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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In the past three years, I’ve anxiously awaited the release of four books:

  1. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling
  2. Brisingr – Christopher Paolini
  3. Catching Fire ­– Suzanne Collins
  4. The Battle – Arthur Brooks

It’s a pretty consistent list. In each, the world is at risk. In each, there are clear sides divided by strong principles. In each, there are moments of despair and struggle that can only be overcome by perseverance. And each cost me about $22.

But the first three are fiction, and though the title doesn’t suggest it, The Battle, released at the beginning of the month, is non-fiction.

Yet The Battle is just as easy-to-read. And the narrative is just as compelling. In only 128 pages, Arthur Brooks frames the “fight between free enterprise and big government” and offers a superb defense of the former.

According to Brooks, the country is currently divided between the “socialist, redistributionist minority (the 30 percent coalition) and a massive free enterprise, work ethic, opportunity-oriented majority (the 70 percent majority).” The 70 percent majority has ruled for most of America’s history, but unfortunately, this is not the case today. The thirty percent coalition is on the ascent, and free enterprise is in retreat.

Even accepting that the thirty percent coalition dominates important groups like the media and academia, it still seems unbelievable that such a minority could threaten our supposedly well-ingrained free enterprise system. Did the 30 percent coalition, with Barack Obama at the helm, somehow cheat the American public? No. Rather, the 30 percent coalition wove a compelling narrative around the recent economic crisis—a narrative so convincing that it allowed the coalition to take political power and begin the restructuring of our free enterprise system. Think hypnosis, not cheating.

The book outlines the false narrative, and it then offers a more accurate narrative (along with the some hard-to-hear comments about the far-from-blameless role that “main street” America played). But the book is best when Brooks defends the free enterprise system. Instead of resorting to the standard “a free market is more efficient and will produce greater wealth” argument, Brooks favors the free market on moral grounds. “People flourish when they earn their own success,” and this is inextricably tied with our endgame prescribed in the Declaration of Independence: the right to pursue happiness.

Nobody makes this argument better than Brooks. His last book, Gross Domestic Happiness, draws a big bold line between the free market and happiness. The Battle does the same, but it moves from a macro-level analysis to the present economic crisis and how the pursuant policies are antithetical to freedom, equality, and human happiness.

But the free market defense is only one reason to read The Battle. Perhaps more interesting to me—already a true-believer in the free enterprise system, and a reader of Brooks’s past works—is what the book says about 1) Arthur Brooks, 2) The American Enterprise Institute, 3) The Tea Party, and 4) AEI’s relationship with the Republican Party.

1) Brooks is president; hear him roar. Now in his new office as President of AEI, Brooks has taken off the cotton archival gloves of the academic, and donned the gauntlets of a politician. Past books like Gross Domestic Happiness and Who Really Cares present an impressive array of statistics that lead to macro-level conclusions that are quite fascinating. But The Battle puts Arthur Brooks in the boxing ring. “The proponents of statism are not evil, but they are dead wrong about what is best for our nation.” It names the names (including, repeatedly, President Obama) and it assigns the blame.

2) AEI is now an institute, not just a collection of scholars. Commonly produced lists of the “top conservative thinkers” or “leaders of the conservative movement” tell a lot about the difference between AEI and The Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C.’s other main conservative think tank. AEI has supremely talented individuals, many of whom are on these lists. But neither past AEI President Chris DeMuth, nor Arthur Brooks made the majority of the 2009 lists. By contrast, very few individual Heritage scholars make the lists, but because Heritage moves as a collective entity, its president, Ed Feulner, usually ranks as one of the more powerful conservatives.

This book can be seen as an attempt to couple AEI’s individual talents with new institutional force. Arthur Brooks wrote The Battle, but the book is a product of AEI as a whole. Senior Fellow Peter Wallison’s work is the foundation for Brooks’s explanation of the economic crisis; AEI economists Kevin Hassett and Philip Levy are cited within one page of each other; AEI senior writer Robin Curie gets top billing in the acknowledgements section, and the two most prominent book jacket endorsements come from AEI scholars Richard Cheney and Newt Gingrich. Gingrich even compares the book to Losing Ground, a famous book by AEI scholar Charles Murray.

3) This is an intellectual who enjoys a good Tea Party or two. Portrayed by the media as raving, hypocritical extremists, Tea Partiers are almost unanimously rejected by the political left, but they are also rejected by many on the right. This is especially true of members of the Republican intelligencia who shy away from anything that can be linked to Sarah Palin or Ron Paul. But The Battle is distinctly favorable toward Tea Parties, especially when Brooks weighs in on the stimulus bill: “Opposing the stimulus package was not a disreputable position. Whatever the government tries to tell you, being against the stimulus does not make you a crank, a radical, or a conspiracy theorist.” Many Republicans have pointed to stimulus opposition as unreasonable and crude politics. Former AEI scholar, and Tea Party critic, David Frum is perhaps the leader of this group of Republicans. But Brooks has thrown open the doors of AEI to say, “Tea Partiers, you are not lunatics, come celebrate with the leading center of intelligent free enterprise.”

4) AEI is a defender of free enterprise, not the Republican Party. Tied to this Tea Party-friendly approach is the book’s disapproval of both Democrats and Republicans. Just as the Tea Partiers have been quick to criticize supposed RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), Brooks notes that “it was a Republican administration that began the huge Wall Street and Detroit bailouts.” And like the Tea Partiers, Brooks is primarily concerned with the defense of the free market, not the Republican Party: “As a political independent, I would gladly vote for any political party dedicated to limited government and entrepreneurship.”

All in all, pretty interesting stuff. But in case I haven’t convinced you that The Battle is worth reading, I’ll leave you with the last line from the book’s front jacket: “The battle is on, and nothing less than the soul of America is at stake.”

Stephen Richer is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.