David Brooks, in his column The Spirit of Enterprise, attributes the wealth of nations like Germany and the US to their habits, values and social capital. “It’s because many people in these countries…believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible.”
One reader writing in to comment (“greppers”, Dec. 2, 2011 at 2 p.m.) objects to Mr. Brooks’ reference to “moral” in the second paragraph, and his “obsession with morality as the root cause of all political, social, or economic issues.” But as George Lakoff would say, “Of course, it is all about morality.”
Mr. Brooks’ introduction of the “effort-should-lead-to-reward” morality echoes Jonathan Haidt’s analysis of What Tea Partiers Really Want, on which I commented on October 23, that “the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune.” And, of course, Professor Lakoff’s explication of the strict father model of morality which underpins conservative thought, states that “if you are obedient, you will become self-disciplined, and only if you are self-disciplined can you succeed. Success is therefore a sign of having been obedient and having become self-disciplined. Success is a just reward for acting within this moral system.” (Moral Politics, p. 68)
I should disclose here that David Brooks is my favorite columnist, even when, or especially when, I disagree with his views. What I enjoy reading in his columns is a different way of putting things and looking at things. He says in this article that, “This ethos is not an immutable genetic property…It’s a precious social construct, which can be undermined and degraded.” Here he distances his ideas from much of popular conservative commentary which seems to think Americans are infallible simply for being American (American exceptionalism). He also distances himself from the strictest of interpretations that those who are successful always deserve it, when he says “Right now, this ethos is being undermined from all directions. People see lobbyists diverting money on the basis of connections; they see traders making millions off of short-term manipulations; they see governments stealing money from future generations to reward current voters.”
Of course, there is an implicit notion that the wealth of Germany comes from following the same principles of wealth creation as the United States, via a relatively unfettered capitalistic system of free enterprise, which favors entrepreneurs. David Leonhardt, in The German Example, notes, however, that Germany “has been far more willing to use the power of government to help its economy,” that the government’s “role starts with serious regulation,” which in part has reinforced the “clout of German unions,” that there is far less income inequality in Germany, and that it is successful while being “the original welfare state.”
If these economics based on different principles lead to similar wealthy outcomes, then there is no strict correlation between national wealth and unfettered capitalism, a connection the conservative movement generally likes to make. It is instead, according to Mr. Brooks, a result of those “habits, values, and social capital” that belong to the whole populace, who are wealthy and successful together.