First, make the moral case for free enterprise

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Article Highlights

  • If you need proof that the pure material case for capitalism is losing, just look around #RoadtoFreedom

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  • Many conservatives today—especially young conservatives—are reluctant to talk about morals #RoadtoFreedom

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  • Free enterprise isn’t an economic alternative. It’s a moral imperative. #RoadtoFreedom

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Ready for the battle in November?

You probably think I’m talking about the election. No, I’m talking about the battle around your Thanksgiving table. The dinner conversation will turn to politics and the economy, and it will be your job to stick up for capitalism and free markets.

You’ll say something intelligent about how it was never markets that caused all the pain in this country over the past four years, but rather the growing government and corporate cronies who gamed the system. Maybe you’ll throw in some facts about how real free enterprise rewards entrepreneurs--the only true job creators—and how current leaders are actively hurting them with needless regulation and punitive, uncertain taxation. For color, you might throw in the fact that the U.S. corporate tax rate is now the highest in the OECD countries.

And then your liberal sister-in-law will stare at you. “You want to cut taxes for millionaires while working families lose their homes.” she’ll say. “I saw a little girl living in her car yesterday. That’s what free enterprise looks like.”


Guess what? You just lost the argument. It doesn’t matter that you had facts and all she had was a lame platitude and an anecdote. Everybody at the table is instantly on your sister-in-law’s side, and they can’t figure out how you turned out to be such a heartless guy.

What just happened?

The answer is that she captured the brain circuitry of everyone around the table by countering your material argument with a moral one. There is a growing body of research on this subject by scholars such as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. Haidt’s research shows that when people are confronted with an emotionally evocative situation, they make a lightening-fast moral judgment. You are unlikely to persuade them based on logic and data that their initial moral judgment was wrong.
"If you want to win the argument, you have one choice, and only one: You have to make your own moral case for free enterprise, right from the beginning." - Arthur C. Brooks
You can complain all you want that liberals are soft-headed and have lousy arguments. But that won’t change the way people are wired. If you want to win the argument, you have one choice, and only one: You have to make your own moral case for free enterprise, right from the beginning. No data, no appeals to stats from the Congressional Budget Office. You can bring that stuff in later. When you first open your mouth, it better be to say what’s written on your heart about the country you love and the system that makes us strong and free.


If you need proof that the pure material case for capitalism is losing, just look around. Our national debt is larger than our national income. And the share of national income spent by governments at all levels is at a peacetime high of 36 percent, and is projected by the government to hit 50% by 2038. That’s what losing the argument looks like.

Making the moral case is incredibly hard to do—not because we don’t believe the free enterprise is morally superior to big government—but because we have become so good at making the case that capitalism creates material prosperity. Furthermore, many conservatives today—especially young conservatives—are reluctant to talk about morals. The word itself harkens back to the “culture wars” of the 1990s over God, gays, and obscene art.

So what should you tell your sister-in-law? Try this one out.

“I want to help that girl in the car,” you say. “But I know that the government is making sure she has no future.

“I believe in a true social safety net to help the poorest Americans—which is exactly what we don't have today. Our current system is mostly a lavish welfare setup for corporate cronies, people with bailouts and tax loopholes, and middle class seniors who take more out of the system than they ever put into it. It’s intolerable, and it’s wrecking our economy.

“And you know who will be left out in the cold when our country goes broke? That little girl. When Social Security and Medicare go bankrupt and America faces a Greek-style debt crisis—which sooner or later it will if we don't act—the ones left without services won't be me, President Obama, or any of us at this Thanksgiving table. It will be the poor who lose their safety net. And it will be our fault.”

Or try this: “I want to help the little girl, and the poor all around the world as well. Since 1970, the world’s worst poverty—living on $1 a day or less—has fallen by 80%! Why? Was it the United Nations, U.S. foreign aid, or the World Bank that achieved this? Of course not. It was globalization, trade, and entrepreneurship. Welfare can lift up the poor a few at a time. Free enterprise is the only system that will lift them up by the billions, which is why every Good Samaritan must support it, at home and all around the globe.”

You probably can come up with even better answers than mine. But just remember this: Free enterprise isn’t an economic alternative. It’s a moral imperative. It’s the means by which we can achieve our God-given right to what our Founders called “the pursuit of happiness.” Only free enterprise allows us to find our own happiness by leading the lives we wish to live. Only free enterprise serves the goal of true, merit-based fairness. Only free enterprise really allows us to help the poor in massive numbers.

We have to reclaim the moral high ground from the statists, and explain why free enterprise is the only truly fair, moral, and virtuous economic system. We are right for material reasons, and more importantly, we are right for moral reasons. We have to make that case first.

Arthur Brooks is president of AEI.


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About the Author


Arthur C.
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.

    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

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