It was not your typical Washington, D.C., summit.
In one chair sat Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. Across from him sat Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a world-renowned spiritual leader from India. Brooks’s trim, clean-shaven, nearly bald look contrasted with Shankar’s long hair and beard.
Most think tank leaders try to push their ideas with spreadsheets and reports—and so does AEI—but Brooks also likes to shake things up sometimes. So on Tuesday, Brooks hosted Shankar, whose Art of Living Foundation has centers in 152 countries, in a discussion about one of Brooks’s favorite subjects: the intersection of capitalism and happiness. The event sold out quickly, and 350 crowded into the AEI’s offices to watch Brooks and the Guru discuss spirituality and economics. One AEI employee remarked that she had never seen the room so crowded.
Brooks started with the spiritual questions. “What’s the secret to happiness?” he asked.
“Just be yourself,” Shankar suggested.
Shankar was in a humorous mood. Americans struggle with stress, he noted, and he suggested they “go slow—drive behind a bicycle.” He laughed at his own joke, and everyone laughed with him.
Brooks, who said he takes meditation retreats, asked Shankar to “speak about the importance of silence.” Shankar did not respond. “He’s practicing silence,” Brooks finally said.
Then the conversation became more political.
At the helm of AEI, Brooks has increased the visibility and influence of the right-leaning think tank, which was somewhat adrift when he took the reins in January 2009. He has grown the AEI’s influence on Capitol Hill and positioned himself among a group of conservatives who believe that the Republican Party needs new ideas and some new talking points to help the party rebound after its electoral losses in 2008 and 2012.
In May, these so-called “reform conservatives” chose the AEI as the place to release a collection of policy essays called Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. Brooks has made his own contributions to this discussion, focusing on repairing the GOP’s image as a party that doesn’t care about poor and middle-class Americans. In February, he penned an essay in the conservative magazine Commentary arguing for a social justice agenda based on welfare reform that would preserve the safety net for the very poor, cut it back for others and increase welfare work requirements.
But Brooks isn’t content to sell economic policies in wonky terms. He wants to talk about the big picture. In his occasional New York Times columns, books and even scholarship from his days as an academic, Brooks sees a connecting thread between capitalism, morality and happiness. For example, in his 2012 book, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise, he argues that capitalism is under attack and that only a moral defense can save it. “He understands the need to put public policy in moral and ethical terms in ways that touch the heart, not just the mind,” his friend and fellow conservative Peter Wehner told Newsweek earlier this year.
Last year, Brooks flew to India to convince the Dalai Lama to pay AEI a visit. In February, he hosted the Dalai Lama in Washington for the first in what Brooks intends to be an ongoing series of conversations on “human flourishing.” Apparently, the Dalai Lama had a good time, so when Brooks invited Shankar for a similar visit, the Dalai Lama’s people encouraged Shankar to accept.
“We need a society where people can pursue their own success, and at the same time they can understand their success as being beyond material things,” Brooks told Newsweek in a joint interview with Shankar before the main event Tuesday. “This is the reason that free enterprise and capitalism matter. It’s not to make us richer but to lift us up so that we can be in a position to be having more transcendent thoughts.”
“Devoid of humanism, capitalism collapses,” Shankar interjected, explaining his view that spirituality gives people the confidence to take responsibility for their own lives.
“I don’t see there is any conflict between capitalism and compassion,” Shankar said. “Rather, capitalism can flourish well with compassion, and compassion can only happen with people who can afford to show compassion and do something about it.”
During the event, Shankar never gushed about capitalism. Getting down to questions of politics and economics, Brooks asked about the “value of work aside from its monetary advantages”—something conservatives often talk about in the context of welfare reform and work requirements in social safety net programs.
“Hard work keeps you out of trouble,” Shankar replied.
“Is it true that compassion and free enterprise are intertwined and one helps build on the other?” Brooks asked, reasoning that capitalism provides the resources to be generous.
“Whether capitalism, communism, socialism or whatever ‘ism’ it is,” Shankar responded, “no ‘ism’ will work without humanism.”
Later in the program, Brooks summarized Shankar’s outlook as “so wealth is good, but we must underlie it with a sense of proper morality.”
“Creation of wealth should always go along with distribution,” Shankar replied, using a word, distribution, that some conservatives use to describe socialistic policies that allow poor people to unfairly subsist on the taxpayer’s dime.
It’s unlikely Shankar knew he was using a D.C. buzzword. Then again, this was not your typical D.C. political event.
And that’s exactly how Brooks wanted it. “I loved it,” he said afterward.