Bryan Caplan  

The Ethos of Arthur Brooks

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Ethos (Credibility), or ethical appeal, means convincing by the character of the author. We tend to believe people whom we respect. One of the central problems of argumentation is to project an impression to the reader that you are someone worth listening to, in other words making yourself as author into an authority on the subject of the paper, as well as someone who is likable and worthy of respect. (source)
There is plenty to argue with in Arthur Brooks' new The Road to Freedom.  But I find it difficult to picture a reader who isn't moved by Brooks' description of his personal odyssey.  I actually read it to my wife in the hospital the day after she gave birth.  Brooks:
I used to have what some considered the best job possible, yet was unhappy.  I spent my whole childhood playing music - violin, then piano, and then finally the French horn.  From the age of nine, playing the horn was practically all I did... I never thought about whether I would pursue a career as a musician; it was simply inevitable... After a few years, I won a job playing in a symphony orchestra - the dream of most classical musicians.

My friends in the orchestra thrived on what they were doing and threw themselves into it with abandonment... Try as I might, I lacked such ardor.  I loved great music, but found the production of it punitive and exacting, and I knew my job would never change much.  My friends had found the soul in their work, but I hadn't found the soul in mine.

So in my late twenties, I hatched a plot to quit.  I took a job teaching music during the day, and (without telling anyone but my wife) studied economics at night until I had a bachelor's degree. At age thirty-one, I gave up the horn and started graduate school, planning to become a social scientist and write books... When I called my father to announce my career change, he asked incredulously, "Why do you want to leave music, when it's going so well"? "Because I'm not happy," I told him.  He was silent for a moment and then demanded, "What's makes you so special?"
Brooks then immediately draws deep philosophical lessons - lessons that are hard to question once you know the story of Arthur Brooks:
The fact is, I'm not so special.  But I'm just an American, and I understood instinctively that the genius of our free enterprise system is that it makes it possible for people to reinvent themselves and earn their success.  That is why the U.S. has always been a magnet for people from other parts of the world who want to transform their lives... Today, I feel I earn my success, and my job gives me joy.
Brooks is too nice of a guy to harp on the flip side of his insight: In even a relatively free society, people also earn their failure.  If you can avoid - or could have avoided - your problems with better choices, you should first and foremost blame yourself - not strangers who think they're taxed enough already.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Arthur Brooks must be the only person in the world whose father told him to be a professional musician instead of majoring in economics.

liberty writes:

America is not special in allowing people to do that. True, you could not do that easily in the Soviet Union as I understand, but you can switch careers in all the countries of Europe, and you'll have an easier time because the bachelors degree would likely have been cheaper, there might be training or other career-changing assistance, unemployment assistance (dole) would have allowed him to quit first and study full-time instead of continuing in a career he didn't like for those years, etc.

So, I think I'm missing the point of this 'American exceptionalism' post...

MG writes:

Perhaps the "exceptionalism" is not that it is easier to make a change/riskless to take a risk in America than in Europe; but that in spite of that, Americans want to do it more often.

Joe writes:

I don't think that's a reasonable conclusion to draw.

Brooks didn't pay anyone to teach him how to play the horn when he was nine. He was handed a valuable skill for free, which allowed him pursue a career to make the money he used to pursue the career he wanted.

He should be credited with making full use of the opportunities available to him, but it seems silly to generalize his situation to the larger population.

Trespassers W writes:
I don't think that's a reasonable conclusion to draw.

So what's a reasonable conclusion to draw? That he should be credited with making full use of the opportunities available to him, but not everyone should? That everyone should be credited for doing so, but not penalized for not making full use of the opportunities available to them? Bryan's conclusion seems more reasonable than either of those conclusions.

Komori writes:


I don't think you can claim his skill came "for free" unless you think time has zero value.

Costard writes:

liberty - university education in France is free, but admission is limited and contingent upon prior testing and one's educational pedigree. Students are sorted and directed into career paths at a young age, and the state's judgment about what they can and cannot study, and what professions they might and might not pursue, is like the sword of God. If the student has other ideas he must leave. He travels to the States and gets his degree here - if he can afford to. Whether we're talking about religion, profession or any of the other circumstances of life, the idea that one invents (or reinvents) himself is a peculiarly American notion. Your pseudonym has acquired in this country a special significance, and given the tone of your comment, I wonder if it wasn't an ironical choice.

Joe writes:

Here's what I'm saying:

Brooks took advantage of his opportunities, and therefore is responsible for his own success.

The converse, that everyone who has less success than Brooks is responsible for that state only makes sense if everyone has the same opportunities as Brooks.

Since it seems absurd to argue that everyone has the same opportunities as Brooks, then it does not follow that Brooks responsibility for his success necessarily means that everyone's failures are the results of their choices.

Heck, I'd go as far as to speculate that just maybe Mr. Brooks made a number of bad choices along the way.

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