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The Pursuit: Arthur Brooks on Capitalism, Dignity, and Opportunity for All

Summary:
I recently had an opportunity to watch The Pursuit, a relatively new documentary film featuring Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart and Love Your Enemies, among other books. It’s a pretty terrific film, directed by John Papola (of Keynes vs. Hayek “Fear the Boom and Bust” fame). In it, we follow Arthur Brooks as he travels to India, Barcelona, Mumbai, Kentucky, and other destinations to talk with people about how their political and economic circumstances affect their chances for well-being and dignity. The basic idea of the film is that capitalism has been a tremendous boon to the world, but especially to its least fortunate. Here’s a trailer: [embedded content] I’m actually surprised that we haven’t

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I recently had an opportunity to watch The Pursuit, a relatively new documentary film featuring Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart and Love Your Enemies, among other books.

It’s a pretty terrific film, directed by John Papola (of Keynes vs. Hayek “Fear the Boom and Bust” fame). In it, we follow Arthur Brooks as he travels to India, Barcelona, Mumbai, Kentucky, and other destinations to talk with people about how their political and economic circumstances affect their chances for well-being and dignity. The basic idea of the film is that capitalism has been a tremendous boon to the world, but especially to its least fortunate. Here’s a trailer:

I’m actually surprised that we haven’t talked more about Brooks on this blog. He’s about as close to a Bleeding Heart Libertarian as one is likely to find in the small world of people who have a tremendous influence on American public policy. For Brooks, it’s not just a happy accident provides dignity and opportunity for the least well-off. The fact that it does, as he repeatedly emphasizes, is what brought him to the free market movement in the first place. It’s a big part of what justifies capitalism for him.

Of course, Brooks isn’t quite a libertarian. He’s a free-market conservative. But I think that libertarians – and Bleeding Heart Libertarians in particular – can nevertheless learn a lot from him. Part of what they can learn is simply how to package their message more effectively. Brooks is a master at putting a human face on capitalism, and his constant and clearly genuinely-felt emphasis on the importance of loving one’s fellow human beings can go a long ways toward breaking down the psychological barriers lots of people have toward capitalism. For Brooks, arguing for capitalism is never about “owning the libs” or amassing “intellectual ammunition.” It’s about building bridges and finding common ground in working toward humanity’s shared problems.

But libertarians can learn from Brooks on a substantive level as well. For instance, Brooks’ emphasis on human dignity and its relation to work is something that one doesn’t often hear libertarians acknowledge. For a lot of libertarians – especially libertarian economists – work is seen merely as a means to an end. And this, I think, leads us to sometimes fail to fully appreciate the way in which processes like technological growth and globalization can seriously undermine the well-being of displaced workers, even as they boost overall economic growth. It’s a problem that can’t be dealt with simply by compensating the “losers” in global competition with a payoff. A job is much more to most people than simply a means to making money, and libertarians would do well to recognize this.

That’s not to say that libertarians are wrong about what the best policies are for dealing with things like globalization and automation. The point is that their arguments for those policies are going to be a lot less effective if they are based on what most people (justly) regard as an impoverished and overly economistic conception of human welfare. Dignity matters.

Anyways, check out the film. And check out Brooks’ newest book, Love Your Enemies, which is also fantastic. You can listen to Russ Robert talk with Brooks about that book on Econtalk here.

Matt Zwolinski
Hi. I’m an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, a co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, and the founder of and frequent contributor to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. My research interests are generally in the intersection of ethics, law, and economics, with two specific areas of focus.

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