While pundits quibble about unemployment and spending, voters this year will be most concerned about which candidates offer the most compelling story about fairness.
That’s the conclusion I took away from “The Road to Freedom,” a new book by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, who will be speaking at a Civitas luncheon in Charlotte on Wednesday, July 18.
One of his key points is that moral decisions are more fundamental than ideology or even self-interest, and perhaps the most important moral issue in 2012 is fairness.
Consider a classic psychology experiment he mentions in the book: Give somebody 10 bucks, on the condition it is shared with another person. Any amount can be offered, but the other person can refuse it.
Conservative theorists say recipients should accept any offer, even just a penny. After all, it’s a penny more than they had before. But often people will reject what they feel is an unfair offer, even if it’s two or three dollars, or $4.99. They are offended to be given what they see as an unfair offer. They want to be treated fairly more than they want money.
That’s true in politics too: Americans demand fairness more than they want prosperity. You could call it outcome fairness, and it’s the basis of liberalism.
But there’s another aspect of fairness: we also want to earn things on our own merits.
In another common experiment, researchers just give somebody something for nothing, even that same $10. This makes people uncomfortable, however; they often try to give it away. People want rewards to be earned – earned fairly – but earned. This could be called merit fairness.
If my summary of “The Road to Freedom” is correct, the 2012 election may boil down to: What kind of fairness do Americans want — outcome fairness or merit fairness?
I would add that this comes down, as so many issues do, to a battle of stories.
Consider Obama’s “Dreams from My Father.” It is looking less like a factual autobiography than mythmaking. But as any literature or religion professor could tell you, a myth isn’t about facts, it’s about larger truths. Did George Washington really confess to chopping down the cherry tree? Doubtful – but the still resonates with Americans. It still seems to say something true about the Father of Our Country, thus about us.
“Dreams from My Father” may be exaggerated, but it conveys what many people feel about the nation: The United States is still afflicted with deep – and unfair – differences in the lives of different groups.
Thus the main story offered by liberalism is that Robber Barons and billionaires amassed profligate wealth by sweating it out of less fortunate people. Again, this isn’t about data, it’s about what many people deep in their hearts feel, about how their most profound moral impulses react to the story.
Unfortunately, as pundits have commented, Romney fits right into that archetype. He grew up privileged and amassed a fortune in business. He does not even have a story of triumphing over adversity in his personal life, as Franklin Roosevelt did in fighting polio. Worst of all, however, to many Americans it is not clear he earned that money “fairly.” This isn’t about statistics or theory or facts; it’s about whether his success seems fair to voters. And many just don’t see how his work at Bain Capital fairly earned him such vast wealth.
That doesn’t mean they are right; it is just to say that the left has an easier moral story to tell: Robber Barons from Bain are easy villains for many voters to imagine. How venture capitalists help people is harder to imagine. Free enterprise champions, alas, haven’t yet succeeded in getting their vision across to enough people.
For there are conservative stories that can reach people. Brooks himself has one. Trained as a classical musician, he landed a job with an orchestra in Spain. Because of the welfare state, that meant he had a job for life. Yet feeling that such job security was unearned and thus unfair, he came back to the United States, studied to be an economist, and succeeded. He exemplifies the rewards of merit fairness.
Some Republican politicians have good stories too. Rick Santorum had a great one about his grandfather, a coal miner who emigrated here to start a new life. (Santorum, of course, blathered on about so many other things that he distracted voters from that story.)
So conservatives do tell stories that explain why free enterprise is the fairest system. But can Mitt Romney tell his own story to convey that vital point? So far he hasn’t. That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. Others defend it; but as a moral narrative, he himself has to tell it in a way to reaches voters’ emotions and moral sensitivities.
And if Brooks is right, the election won’t be decided by speeches or statistics, but by which moral story – outcome fairness or merit fairness – wins over the most voters.