WASHINGTON – Government programs that take away poor people's incentive to earn their own success are immoral, because earned success is the key to happiness, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argued recently in an interview on "The Morality of the Market," at the National Review Institute's 2013 Summit, "The Future of Conservatism."
Brooks has a master's degree in economics and a Ph.D. in policy analysis and has conducted research and written books on happiness. He found that the happiest people have at least two or three of the following: faith, family, community, and work that is satisfying and vocational.
The key to their happiness, though, is earned success, he said. Success does not have to be financial success; there are those with high levels of income and low levels of income who are equally happy because they feel that they have earned their success as they define success for themselves.
"Earned success," Brooks said, "is the belief that you are creating value in your life and value in the lives of other people."
Brooks believes this is an innate part of human nature, or part of the natural law. In conducting research on social entrepreneurs, Brooks said he has met hundreds of people who "live off tap water and ramen noodles, but they're happy because they've earned their success." He has also met many women who gave up careers to raise their children and are happy because they earned their success as they defined success for themselves.
The AEI president has also found that low-income workers who do not receive government benefits are much happier than poor people who do receive government benefits. His research followed people who were forced off of government welfare programs due to the 1996 welfare reform law. Ten years after they involuntarily had to stop receiving government benefits, they were much happier than those who were receiving government benefits.
"Here's the moral problem with what we are doing: we are ruining the lives of the poor. ... Everybody knows that hurting vulnerable people is an immoral thing to do," Brooks said.
Free enterprise has done more for poor people than government, Brooks believes. After 1970, he said, American-style free enterprise spread around the world. The result was that the number of those living in extreme poverty, or on $1 per day or less, declined by 80 percent. It was not government programs that did this, Brooks insisted, "It was globalization, free trade, property rights, rule of law, and entrepreneurship."
The problem with today's U.S. government, Brooks believes, is that it "doesn't know the difference between success and earned success."
In his Inauguration speech, President Barack Obama argued that government programs "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Brooks disagrees. We are a nation of takers, he argued. About half of American families receive at least one unearned government entitlement and 70 percent of taxpayers take more out of the system than they put in.
"It's not that we're filthy beggars," Brooks said. "These are good patriotic people who want to get ahead. ... This is a country that is making it impossible to earn our success and that's immoral."