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America's new culture war: Free enterprise vs. government control

Just compare the protests in America with those in Europe. Here, we see tea partiers demonstrating against the government's encroachment on the free enterprise system and protesting the fact that the state is spending too much money bailing out too many people. Why are people protesting in Greece? Because they want the government to give them even more. They are angry because their government -- in the face of its worst economic and perhaps existential crisis in decades -- won't pay the lavish pensions to which they feel entitled. There's no better example of the cultural difference between America and Europe today, yet it is toward European-style social democracy that the 30 percent coalition wants to move us.

Fortunately, it is hard to dismiss the voice of the voters in some of our most recent electoral contests. Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat from Massachusetts in January by declaring himself not an apparatchik Republican but a moral enthusiast for markets. "What made America great?" he asked. "Free markets, free enterprise, manufacturing, job creation. That's how we're gonna do it, not by enlarging government." His cultural pitch for free enterprise hit just the right chord, even in liberal Massachusetts. It struck at the heart of the 30 percent coalition's agenda for America.

Brown's victory -- and Rand Paul's triumph in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary last week, for that matter -- are but warning shots in the burgeoning culture war. The most intense battles are still ahead.

To win, the 70 percent majority must come together around core principles: that the purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism; that we stand for equality of opportunity, not equality of income; that we seek to stimulate true prosperity rather than simply treat poverty; and that we believe in principle over power.

This final idea is particularly challenging. In Washington, a lot of people think they know how to win. They say what is needed are telegenic candidates, dirty tricks and lots of campaign money. To them, thinking long-term means thinking all the way to 2012. In other words, they talk only of tactics, parties and power.

They are wrong. What matters most to Americans is the commitment to principle, not the exercise of power. The electorate did not repudiate free enterprise in 2008; it simply punished an unprincipled Republican Party.

But political turmoil can lead to renewal, and the challenges of this new culture war can help us mobilize and reassert our principles. The 2008 election was perhaps exactly what America needed. Today there is a very real threat that the 30 percent coalition may transform our great nation forever. I hope this threat will clear our thinking enough to bring forth leaders -- regardless of political party -- with our principles at heart and the ideas to match. If free enterprise triumphs over the quest for political power, America will be the stronger for it.

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future." He will be online on Monday, May 24, at 11:00 a.m. EST to chat. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.

From the archives: For recent Outlook coverage of the "tea party" movement, see Richard Viguerie's "Tips for a proper tea party" (May 2) and Dan Quayle's "Why the tea party shouldn't go Perot" (April 4).


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