Arthur Brooks Presents the “Moral Case” for the Free Enterprise System

The Road to Freedom by Arthur C. BrooksThose of us in the business world who experience first-hand the positive attributes of the free enterprise system while also seeing certain failings, usually find it much easier to defend the concept of free enterprise from the perspective of “facts, data and efficiency”: Things work better under a capitalist system because the profit motive and competition combine to reward both effort and results.

Of course, that sort of defense makes it pretty easy for others to accuse capitalism of being an essentially heartless, unfair system that promotes winners and losers … where more typically “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

The lame response to that contention is often something like what Sir Winston Churchill once said about democracy: “It’s the worst system – except for all the others.”

Now along comes a book that presents a moral case for free enterprise: The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise, by Arthur C. Brooks. Published just last month, I think it’s the freshest, most modern exposition of ideas on the topic since Friedrich Hayek in the 1950s.

Dr. Brooks bases his moral defense of the free enterprise system on the ideals of earned success, equality of opportunity, charity, and basic fairness. Of these, I find the “fairness” argument for capitalism to be the most interesting and useful aspect in that it takes an argument normally used against capitalism and turns it back on its accusers.

Brooks does a very good job presenting the case of how the free market, while not perfect, is the fairest system for the largest number of people – including the poor. One of the ways that he illustrates his points is by citing “happiness” research exercises that have been conducted with groups of people over the past 10-20 years in many different countries all over the world. These studies show the power of the idea of “earned success” and the fact that it has near-universal human appeal over the alternative of “learned helplessness” of less free economic structures.

It’s refreshing to read a book on economic matters that doesn’t fall into the realm of a polemic, and that eschews doctrinaire philosophy and partisan labels. Instead, Brooks emphasizes that government has a role in protecting the population from corporate cronyism and monopoly power, even while defending free enterprise as the fairer and more moral system.

To top it off, the book is written in an easy-to-approach conversational tone with liberal doses of humor. How often can you say that about a book on economics?

For anyone else who has read Dr. Brooks’ book, let’s hear your reactions. Do you have a different take?

2 thoughts on “Arthur Brooks Presents the “Moral Case” for the Free Enterprise System

  1. Dr. Brooks certainly makes a good case raising the ideals of earned success, equality of opportunity, charity, and basic fairness. My question is if he is perhaps erring in some assumptions. What is equality, what is ‘basic fairness’ and what is charity.

    I have recently been exposed to people who think it fair that they should aspire to a career of being disabled. People proudly identify as disabled and make it feel like an accomplishment that entitles them to receiving a livelihood by way of a governmental or other subsidy. It seems obvious how misguided that is. Almost. People should take care of people, but the system of ‘charity’ turns it into an unequality.

    One of my major challenges, however, would address the assumption of absolute equality. There is no such thing. Equality is always relative. Equal to something or someone. Since people are never really equal, that leaves equality to something. But since we are talking about people, that something again can only be an individual’s reality. And in terms of things to aspire to, that leaves us with nothing but to be equal to one’s own reality and its inherent capacities. And within that, we make our choices.

    Another request would be to get an explanation of how economic ‘growth’ (“grow or die”) can be fair in the eyes of someone advocating earned success. Does not yesterday’s earned success fall victim to today’s growth? In fact, is earned success not factually stolen routinely by the subsequent nominal growth? The beginning story in John Tomlinson’s ‘Honest Money’ (honest-money.com) illustrates that so well.

    Then there is the fundamental question about how any attainment corrupts. Example: You attain a job, and as soon as you have it, keeping the job will become priority over doing it. How is that fair? What does the person really earn? Or is the person merely abusing her/his power of keeping someone else from getting the job . . for awhile.

    Not so easy.

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