Arnold Kling  

Arthur Brooks of AEI

Against the Research and Devel... Austerity for Liberty...

I went to a Cato annual picnic yesterday. Several of my Cato friends were not there. Brink Lindsey, obviously.* But there happened to be some no-shows among folks who I know that are still there. You know who you are and what your excuses were.

*The story that I got was that Lindsey received a generous offer from Kauffman that Cato was unable/unwilling to match. Of course, one never knows what took place that preceded the receipt of the offer.

So I ended up talking with Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute (I teased him about coming to "check out the competition.") It was not on the record, but I don't think he gave away any secrets, so I'll try to offer my impressions below the fold.

I told Brooks that when I think of the AEI brand, the word that comes to mind is "stodgy." They are known as the conservative counterpart to Brookings, employing respectable academics and supplying policy wonks when the Repubilcans are in power and providing a home for conservative wonks when Republicans are out of power.

While not rejecting that role for the AEI, Brooks gave the sense that he would like to shift its focus toward communicating with a younger, slightly broader audience. He wants the AEI to provide young leaders with the arguments that can be used to solidify and articulate their commitment to free enterprise.

He would like to expand the AEI's ability to communicate with young high-achievers. I think that this is much more than a technical challenge. It is not a matter of utilizing new media or coming up with better targeting. Young people do not want to be an "audience" receiving the wisdom of experts. They want to participate in the conversation.

Brooks thinks that the case for markets must be made in moral terms rather than in material terms. Young members of the cognitive elite (my term, not his) take affluence for granted, as well they might. They are focused on other values (you may recall the Russ Roberts podcast with Dan Pink, talking about autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose).

Brooks would like to reverse the usual tenor of the debate in which the opponents of capitalism make moral arguments and the defenders of capitalism make material arguments. He would like to leave the opponents of capitalism arguing for material equality in the context of a sterile, corporatist-statist economy that stifles individual creativity. He would like to have the defenders of capitalism argue that human flourishing requires allowing people to strive for and earn their success.

I think that America has a long-standing religious divide. I draw on sources such as Walter Russell Mead, David Hackett-Fischer and Daniel Walker Howe. On one side are the descendants of New England's Puritans and others, who have always wanted to improve society. They gave us the anti-slavery movement, the temperance movement, and the Progressive movement. Call this the Northern Evangelical strain. On the other side are the descendants of other strands of Protestantism, who emphasize self-help and honor. Call this the Southern Evangelical strain. Lee Harris would call them the natural libertarians.

I see Brooks as wanting to throw in his lot with the Southern Evangelicals and to take on the Northern Evangelicals. On the other hand, many libertarian intellectuals feel more comfortable socially on the other side of the divide. Ironically, this is in part because there is more tolerance of gay marriage among the people who I think of as descendants of the Puritans.

Brooks strikes me as wanting to execute a difficult pivot at the AEI. For attracting young leaders, he considers establishment conservatism to be overly focused on narrow concepts of economic performance. He is trying to make what I would call a Southern Evangelical sales pitch to young leaders. In effect, he seems to want to say, "If you are inclined to be either a business or social entrepreneur, then you want to join our side. The other side is going to smother you inside a huge bureaucratic state."

Many of us think that young leaders will be difficult to reach with a Southern Evangelical message, however thoughtfully it is crafted. Brink Lindsey seeks to approach young leaders from the opposite direction, using what he and Will Wilkinson term liberaltarianism. Lindsey and Wilkinson say, in effect, "Your Northern Evangelical roots are fine. We just want to explain to you the practical value of markets."

I think that Brooks would argue that people take their political stands morally, not materially. Thus, the libertarian voice for markets as efficient and effective will fall on deaf ears. Instead, he would say that we should make the case that people are more satisfied with earned success, however modest, than with government subsidies, however generous.

I worry that the AEI is an unlikely vehicle for carrying Brooks' message. I keep coming back to my "stodgy" image for the AEI. It is known for its academically certified policy work, not for conveying the uplifting qualities of free enterprise.

I also wonder whether the AEI is capable of getting out of content-production mode and into conversational mode. If my hypothesis is correct, reaching young leaders who are outside of the immediate GOP establishment orbit is going to require a more conversational approach.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (12 to date)
razib writes:

very confident that this is the best post i will read today. could quibble with your historical model, but well said overall i'd say.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Personally, I prefer Rothbard's high church - low church distinction for, respectively, your southerns and northerns. The general point, that our core ideologies are derived from long-standing theological disagreements is, I think, valid.

It sounds to me as if Brooks is suggesting an 'alliance' with an ideology naturally sympathetic to libertarianism, even if that ideology has been dominated for 150 years.

I wonder whether, rather than converting the Languedoc, we get higher returns engaging the (perhaps hostile) salons of Paris. These would be the perhaps several hundred intellectuals who, collectively, coronate the dominate ideology.

An analogy would be if the Tea Party had focused on taking over the Dems rather than the GOP.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Interesting. Even though I have lived in the south all my life, I've been accused of thinking more like a northerner and some of these descriptions help me to see why. However I'm not sure about taking wealth for granted and also made the decision a while ago, to frame arguments as non-morally as possible. It does seem that the young among us would naturally share the concern of the Tea Party about gaining more control back over one's life.

Joseph Sunde writes:

Very insightful post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Brooks and AEI.

From my discussions with libertarians, many have negative feelings toward AEI not for being "stodgy" but for being neo-con. This could be a significant barrier in achieving this message.

That said, if AEI is going to try to reach a younger audience, I think it all depends on their strategy and execution. They could surprise us all. Being the 20-something that I am, I can tell you that few folks on college campuses (liberals or conservatives) know what AEI is in the first place (even those who are politically involved).

If they put forth a concerted effort toward a new(er), more specific message, they may be able to spread their brand quite effectively.

I may be particularly optimistic because Brooks was the first thinker to really change my way of thinking about free enterprise (before his AEI days). Years ago, as a sophomore at a liberal university, I picked up his book "Who Really Cares" and it changed the whole way I thought about conservatism/libertarianism. I had hunches about the moral arguments, but he really crystalized them for me. Brooks caught me where I was, so I'm optimistic he can continue to do so — whether it involves AEI or not.

By the way, I interviewed Brooks on his new book over at my blog. Topics include materialism and social entrepreneurship:

fundamentalist writes:

Nice article! I agree. But I think Brooks doesn't get one thing. Remember the old saw, the medium is the message. Young people don't read that much. A few do and you have a shot at winning a small number of them. But the majority of young people get everything from TV, movies, youtube and especially the comedy news shows. Conservatives and libertarians have always been very bookish. Most young people are not. Unless libertarians can learn to use visual media effectively, which I doubt, they'll never be popular among the young.

The only conservative group I know of who uses visual media at all is the Acton Institute.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I don't understand why one could not make both arguments? Other than arguing the moral position might put off quite a few persons of the northern persuasion. I just think it depends on your audience the argument one uses.

Jeffrey Miller writes:

May I make a modest suggestion?

Rather than wrapping themselves in contortions about which evangelical tradition Cato and AEI should pretend to represent in order to sway the most "young leaders" to adopt their positions, they could start by taking a much simpler and more honest approach - namely presenting factual information as objectively as possible.

As a business owner and entrepreneur, I am sympathetic to many of the libertarian positions espoused by Cato. At the same time, as someone trained in science, I regard Cato and AEI with contempt because they deliberately disseminate falsehoods which they believe are agreeable to the Koch brothers and their other funding masters. Because of this, I heavily discount anything written "researchers" associated with these "institutes".

The most important example of this is climate science. I have read numerous papers on the subject by researchers in this field (I have a PhD in physics so can follow some of it). For about a decade, the overwhelming consensus of these researchers, who range from ecologists, to climate modelers, to atmospheric chemists, to paleoclimate researchers, to geologists, is that global warming is real, it is caused by human activity, and if unchecked poses huge risks for the habitability of the planet (at least as far as humans are concerned).

Yet in the face of this overwhelming factual evidence and scientific consensus, Cato and AEI laughably try to pretend that there is a huge debate in the climate research community about what is going on.

Again, I understand why they do this - it is what the Koch's are paying them for, but it does have the drawback of discrediting these groups amongst people who care about evidence, try to be good Bayesians when forming beliefs, and generally believe in the scientific method.

Jack writes:

I agree with Jeffrey Miller. Targeting a population of young people who are rational about economics, but irrational about science really narrows the pool.

Many of us are waiting for there part time libertarians to break with the ignorance of faith based propagandists, not look for high tech ways to continue to obscure the obvious conflicts between the two.

Eapen Thampy writes:

As a young person, I'm inclined to like Brooks' message. Breaking into the conversation is likely (in my view) to reap sizable dividends. Can AEI shed their stodgy/neocon image? I think perhaps the ability to initiate the conversation will allow them to do that, if they can indeed initiate the conversation.

Tariq Scherer writes:

This post has peaked my interest into the AEI in the US public policy process and, as far as Brooks interest of gaining increased youth audience, seems to have worked for me.

The potential of the AEI to deliver a message over to a new generation is a natural drive and one that should be encouraged. In terms of practical values: the strong and rich history of the AEI in direct policy engagement experience is an invaluable resource for any future policy participant.

As you noted yourself, they are viewed as a bit of a sinecure in times of darkness and an active source of policy material in times of activity. Both of these roles, and the operations that underpin it, are valuable to new generations: who else can provide the public policy analysis and knowledge to the next generation, if not for the AEI or Cato?

As to the point of pushing the 'moral' agenda: certainly, such a viewpoint is resonating with younger audiences too. The value of markets in providing freedom and stable government is too often taken for granted, that this fact should be re-asserted can only reinforce and reinvigorate the debate.

I look forward to more news from Brooks and his initiatives.

Tariq Scherer
Twenty Four Something

Mike Devaney writes:

I once paid close attention to the opinions of the AEI but no more. Unlike Cato they are unashamedly partisan. One might characterize their close ties to the Republican establishment as "stodgy" but I view them as the partisan counterpart of Brookings or the Progressive Policy Institue. One cannot help but search for the political motivation behind their "research."

Snorri Godhi writes:

Sorry, but if you insist in slotting Arthur Brooks inside a pre-defined scheme (North. vs South. Evangelical), then it is your own fault if he does not appeal to people who identify with "the other side".

What about those of us who are not even sure what "evangelical" means? I have not got around to read Brooks' book yet, but it seems to me that framing it in terms of Evangelism is a good way to miss its point. The authors that I am reminded of, when I think of Brooks, are: Tocqueville (French), Martin Wiener (American, but I am not sure whether Evangelical or not), Martin Seligman (American, from a Jewish family, agnostic), and Ruut Veenhoven (Dutch). Maybe Max Weber (German). From all these authors, from very different perspectives, I get the same message: freedom makes us happy, and a statist culture makes us unhappy even before it endangers our freedom. (Of course, if I misunderstood their work, it is my own fault.)

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