What's the Morality of Free Enterprise?

Arthur Brooks: The Moral Case for Capitalism
Arthur Brooks: The Moral Case for Capitalism

The second decade of the third millennium is off to a tumultuous start—especially when it comes to the economy. A new generation is being forced to wrestle w...


The number of people living in poverty — surviving on $1 or less per day — has declined by 80 percent worldwide since 1970. That's billions of people no longer living in destitution. Poverty still exists, but that extreme low has essentially been eradicated. The reason? Free enterprise.

Given that fact, the moral case for free enterprise ought to be an easy argument. Yet, somehow it has become harder to make the case. Why?

Proponents have been losing the moral call for free enterprise despite its success rate largely because they argue the material claim, not the moral one. So how do you argue the morality of free enterprise?

Try the example given by Arthur Brooks in the attached video. It goes like this:

If you make a moral argument, you will dominate the medial prefrontal cortex of your listeners, and nothing else will matter. You'll wipe everything else out, and I'm going to prove it to you. I'm gonna prove it to you by telling you a story that's going to dominate your medial prefrontal cortices, and you're not going to remember anything else about this speech except the story I'm gonna tell you right now.

Okay, there's a family, a family like mine, perhaps, mom, dad, three little kids. Now this family, like a lot of families, is at war. The kids want a dog, and mom and dad don't. Okay, this happens all the time, happened in my family as a matter of fact. Mom and dad say, 'No, we don't want to get a dog.' The kids go, 'Mom, how come we can't get a dog? We'll take care of it.' Mom will say, 'No you won't. We'll end up taking care of it.' Well, like in every family, the kids went over mom, and then it's an unbeatable coalition and dad caves. Right, and so they go down to the pound and they pick out a puppy and they name her Muffin. Okay, now they bring Muffin home, and dad is skeptical and all that, but you know what, it turns out, mom and dad are wrong. Muffin is great, loves the kids, the family gets along better. It's the glue that brings the family together — the best thing they ever did.

A couple years go by, family is happy. One summer day in August the youngest child, she's eight, accidentally leaves the front door open. Muffin sees a squirrel in the front yard and goes running out after the squirrel dashes across the front yard into the road. Boom! Gets hit by a car, killed in front of the whole family. Kids are screaming, mom is crying, dad is crying. Turns out he loves Muffin the most. Right. So they go out and dad picks up Muffin's lifeless body and as a whole family they bring her into the house and make the decision to cook her and eat her.

Was that the right thing to do? No. Why not? Maybe you don't know offhand. Brooks explains:

Your medial prefrontal cortex is blown by this. You made an immediate moral judgment, and you can't actually explain it rationally until minutes or maybe even hours later. Maybe even never. This is the lesson. If you want to win an argument, if you want to persuade an audience, if you want people to understand what really matters, you must say what's written on your heart. You must say what matters morally, and you must make that argument in the first five seconds.

Here's how you should be talking about the poor if you love free enterprise. It is because of globalization, free enterprise, innovation, and trade, that the world has seen a system lift billions of people — 80 percent of the global population — out of destitution. If you feel morally commanded 'to do unto the least of these as you have done unto me' then you are commanded to put in place a system, not welfare or foreign aid, but a system that can help lift people by the billions.

What do you think of Brooks’ remarks? Will you change how you debate your beliefs?