I remember the first time I saw real poverty. It was the early 1970s, so I would have been 7 or 8 years old. Flipping through a copy of National Geographic magazine, I found a heartbreaking photo. It showed a malnourished African boy, about my own age, with flies on his face and a distended belly.
I had never seen poverty like that before. True, by today’s standards, my childhood neighborhood in Seattle would be considered austere. As far as I know, my parents were the only ones in our working-class neighborhood with a college education. Some of our neighbors relied on food stamps. Most of the families were led by single parents.
But compared with that photo in National Geographic, my neighborhood seemed like Beverly Hills.
The tragic image provoked two sensations in me. The first was helplessness. There was really nothing I could do for the boy besides offering up some prayers or maybe sending my allowance to UNICEF. Even as a little kid, I grasped that anything I could personally do would be inadequate.
After helplessness came indignation. It was not fair that I was loved in my home in Seattle while that boy was starving to death in Africa through absolutely no fault of his own.
I grew up, went to school, found a job and started a family. But that image stayed with me. Not infrequently, I would look back and wonder: What happened to that boy? Of course, there is no way to know his specific fate. But more generally, I wondered: What happened to desperately poor people like him? Was life better? Or worse?
We know the answer. Poverty still exists, of course, both in Africa and right here at home. But on the whole, life has gotten much better for the world’s poorest people since I was a kid. The percentage of people in the world living on $1 a day or less — a traditional measure of starvation-level poverty — has fallen by 80 percent since 1970, adjusted for inflation.
When I was a child, more than one in four people around the world lived on that amount or less. Today, only about one in 20 live on that little. This is the greatest anti-poverty achievement in world history.
So how did this remarkable transformation come to pass? Was it the fabulous success of the United Nations? The generosity of U.S. foreign aid? The brilliant policies of the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank? Stimulus spending and government redistribution?
No, it was primarily none of those things. Billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to five incredible innovations: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship. By the way, these five things were all made possible by the historically anomalous peace after World War II that resulted from America’s global diplomatic and military presence.
When I was a kid, when we Americans saw the world’s poor, they saw us, too. We saw their poverty; they saw our freedom and our prosperity. They threw off the chains of poverty and tyranny by copying our American ways. It was the free-enterprise system that not only attracted millions of the world’s poor to our shores and gave them lives of dignity, but also empowered billions more to pull themselves out of poverty worldwide.
The ideals of free enterprise and global leadership, central to American conservatism, are responsible for the greatest reduction in human misery since mankind began its long climb from the swamp to the stars.
This system has been America’s gift to the world. Do we have the courage to celebrate it and defend it? Do we have the fortitude to reform its shortcomings and work harder to ensure that its blessings reach everyone — without losing sight of the tremendous opportunities that free enterprise brings within reach of our most vulnerable neighbors?
The true benefits of free enterprise and democratic capitalism are not material. They are moral. They are manifest in the lives of the men, women and children in the United States and around the world who have seized opportunities to build prosperous, safe and secure lives — opportunities that could easily never have existed. But there is more work to do. There are billions more who are hungry for the same opportunity.
We must remember the world-changing principles that have served us so well. We must find creative ways to apply those principles to public policy. And we must extend to these brothers and sisters of ours the same ladder that has benefited us so immensely.
• Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D., is president the American Enterprise Institute. Parts of this essay are adapted from his 2015 best-seller, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America” (Broadside Books).