First of a three-part series. Tuesday: American fairness means equality of opportunity, not income. Wednesday: Earned success is the secret to human happiness.
America faces a new culture war. This is not a fight over guns, abortions, religion or gays. Nor is it about Republicans versus Democrats. Rather, it is a struggle between two competing visions of America's future.
In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income redistribution, and government-controlled corporations.
“The Battle” presents the evidence that free enterprise is an expression of the core values of a large majority of Americans. It brings the most life satisfaction to the most people. Personal liberty, individual opportunity and entrepreneurship are the explanation for our nation's past success and the promise of greater things to come.
But the unprecedented economic crisis has introduced panic to our nation. Panic distorts our values and has given the minority who support big government a pretext to introduce sweeping change that threatens the very core of America's national history, culture and character.
Many Americans have forgotten the evils of Soviet socialism and the disasters of the Great Society's welfare state programs in this country. The forces of statism are back with a vengeance.
They have the full arsenal of government money and power, they are working for the hearts of a whole generation of younger Americans, and they are using our economic insecurity to introduce breathtaking increases in state power.
There is a very real threat before us that our great nation may be transformed forever. One can only hope that this threat will clear our thinking enough to bring forth leaders with our principles at heart and the ideas to match.
If principle triumphs over the mere quest for political power, perhaps the other core principles of the free-enterprise movement will emerge anew. And America will be the stronger for it.
When it comes to attitudes about free enterprise, there are stark differences between Americans and our cousins across the Atlantic. According to a 2006 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes study, Europeans are half as likely as Americans to attribute success in life to their own efforts.
They are far less likely to say that competition is a positive force for the country. And they value less the merits of personal industry: Even the notoriously industrious Germans are only one-third as likely as Americans (20 percent compared to 60 percent) to believe that children should be instructed in the value of hard work.
Free enterprise lies at the very core of America's national history, culture and character. Most of us believe that free enterprise is the best system for America. It's part of the cultural mainstream — as American as apple pie.
Whether we ask people their views about free markets, the importance of private business, or the proper role of government, a very large majority express support for free enterprise over statism and redistribution.
No matter how the question is posed, less than 30 percent of Americans say they believe we would be better off without free enterprise at the core of our system.
But the sad truth is that the 30 percent coalition did not start governing this country with the advent of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They've been in charge for years.
Republicans, who once counted spending discipline as a core value, have been as responsible as Democrats for the growth in government in recent years. The only difference is that the Democrats in office today are true believers in the values of the 30 percent coalition.
Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future” (www.arthurbrooks.net ).