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Under Development

February 3, 2019 (1,264 words)

As president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) since January 2009, Arthur Brooks has spent the last ten years working with political, intellectual, and business leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the country. His special mission has been to “defend liberty, increase opportunity, and expand access to the blessing of free enterprise to all.”

He has also been fund-raiser-in-chief for this high-profile conservative/libertarian think tank, whose over two hundred employees were relocated into an historic D.C. landmark building after it underwent a mind-boggling $100 million renovation in 2016, transforming it into a glittering new headquarters.

As reported in a feature article on Mr. Brooks that appeared in The Washington Post in early 2017, this army of employees “earn a living from the nearly $50 million a year in donations that Brooks & Co.’s scrappy fundraisers bring in. About $1 million of that money covers Mr. Brooks’ annual compensation, according to federal tax records.”

In addition to developing himself into a rainmaker extraordinaire over the last ten years, Mr. Brooks has “spent decades studying culture and public policy,” during which time he has simultaneously developed a reputation as an “idea man.” A self-described “bleeding heart with a conservative brain,” the source of Brooks’ unique insight is the point at which he sees technical economics intersecting with sources of human happiness.

Among his favorite topics, then, are economic opportunity, the inherent morality of free enterprise, and traditional sources of human happiness and human flourishing. In recent years he has shared his thoughts on these subjects via a steady stream of best-selling books, along with the occasional New York Times op-ed piece.

…what’s next for this original thinker?

So now, having achieved personal wealth, and having established his reputation as a best-selling author, a prolific social scientist, and an original thinker, what’s next for Arthur Brooks?

In his latest book, due to be published next month (March 2019), he sets aside economic forecasting to take up the mantle of mainstream social commentator. Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt , “offers a roadmap to the happiness that comes when we chose to love one another, despite our differences.” The author creates this roadmap by “drawing on ancient wisdom, cutting-edge behavioral science, and examples from history’s greatest leaders.”

Wow, sounds like pretty heady stuff, with something to appeal to a broad range of today’s inquisitive citizens/consumers. Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles says this new book “demonstrates that the seemingly ‘soft’ virtues of love, friendship, and warm-heatedness are, in point of fact, the very qualities most needed to make progress in the rough-and-tumble of the political and cultural conversation.”

This altruistic theme has been the undercurrent of Brooks’ last few best-sellers. But what reviewers and Brooks himself seem to miss is this: it is the economic framework we live within that is responsible for our toxic ideological climate.

As a man who earns a million dollars a year, it’s relatively easy for Mr. Brooks to sit above the fray and look down on the current turmoil with the perspective that comes from detachment. Which is to say, when one is making a million dollars a year, it’s far easier to bring love, friendship, and warm-heartedness to life in our dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself culture.

…worldly success, and the cut of his jib

Not that I would ever hold his worldly success against him. Nor do I have any reason to object to the cut of his jib. The gentleman may be just as Jonah Goldberg of National Review describes him: “a unique mix of Catholic piety, data obsession, sartorial connoisseurism, physical fitness, old-soul wisdom, and basic decency.”

My point is simply that Arthur Brooks has yet to achieve anything remotely resembling a useful synthesis of ideas. Like every other well-known commentator currently plying their trade, there is a gaping hole in Mr. Brooks’ analysis.

Jonah Goldberg makes reference to Arthur Brooks’ Catholic piety. Elsewhere one will find Brooks portrayed as a “devout Catholic.” (There seem to no “professed” or “practicing” Catholics in public life; they are all “devout.”)

Mr. Brooks has obviously been drawing on his Catholic belief of late, as when he has referenced the need to focus on “faith, family and friendships” as a source of life’s meaning. This is offered as an antidote to the empty feeling that comes from the endless pursuit of material improvement, a pursuit “the blessings of free enterprise” so obviously encourages. The title of his new book, a famous aphorism/commandment, is his most direct reference to basic Catholic teaching so far.

… a fundamental deficiency in Brooks’ thought process

I can appreciate Mr. Brooks’ generic attempts to bring his soft religious beliefs to bear on the harsh economic proscriptions that have defined his professional life. But there is a fundamental deficiency in Mr. Brooks’ thought process. He has failed to embrace Catholic social teaching as it applies to economic behavior. That teaching has been elucidated by every single Catholic Pope since Leo XIII started the parade in 1891.

It is Mr. Brooks’ stubborn allegiance to “liberty, increased opportunity, and earned success” that is getting in his way. He has adopted the mindset of a classical liberal, as first articulated some five hundred years ago. This is when the common good took a back seat, and the emancipation of the individual gained ascendancy as the sole meaning and purpose of economic and political life.

This ideology dominates and defines the modern world and has always been in direct opposition to Catholic principles and teaching. Conservative American Catholics who have done well for themselves seem to be the last people on earth able to perceive this conflict.

By now Arthur Brooks is firmly entrenched as a member of the latter, obtuse group. He is riding high and on a roll, what with a new book coming out next month, a feature film (The Pursuit) due to be released, and an appointment to the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School as a professor of the practice of public leadership, scheduled to take effect this coming July.

Like all our other “leaders” and “social commentators,” Mr. Brooks will no doubt continue to burnish his reputation and build his brand, making appearances and issuing pronouncements. My sincere hope is that one day he will step away from the noisy and seductive adulation to have a silent encounter with the truth. Then maybe he will emerge with something truly profound to share.

… a recommendation for new reading material

My first recommendation for new reading material would be Thomas Stork’s latest book: An Economics of Justice and Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, Its Development and Contemporary Relevance.

In fact, if AEI is serious about eradicating poverty and improving economic opportunities for the destitute members of our society, it might want to consider hiring Mr. Stork as one of its resident scholars. But then, his work and thought may not appeal to the reliable stable of wealthy AEI donors.

My second recommendation would be something along the lines of The Myth of Capitalism, just published by Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn. It describes the last four decades as an uninterrupted rise of vast, predatory monopolies that have produced a toxic mix of slow growth and widening inequality felt around the world.

It’s unfortunate that Arthur Brooks and AEI refuse to acknowledge this unpleasant reality, as he and they continue to promote their data-obsessed platitudes about “free enterprise” being able to “give everyone a chance to build their own lives.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 3, 2019

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