Brooks used the precipitous drop in poverty rates as a data point in his broader argument that work is one of the most important factors in generating happiness. And not just creative, fun work—any work, even Walmart jobs, he says. It doesn’t matter if you make minimum wage or Brooks’s own $645,000 salary—the important thing is experiencing “earned success,” he explains, or “the belief that you’re creating value with your life and that you’re creating value in the lives of other people.” The opposite of “earned success,” he said, is “learned helplessness.” Getting something for nothing makes you “despondent and depressed.” And that’s the mental state the world’s poor cast off in recent years, he says. “Free enterprise does that for everyone,” he added. “That’s the story of earned success. That’s the story of helping people avoid their learned helplessness.”
Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, remembers that when he was a boy, he would see images in National Geographic of children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes—in other words, kids living in pure, miserable poverty.
But that kind of poverty, in which people live on less than $1 a day, has decreased by 80 percent since his childhood. And it wasn’t the UN, World Bank, or foreign aid that was responsible for that decline, he argues. He believes there are five explanations, which he laid out for an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic:
"Globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and innovative entrepreneurship, American style. It was the American free-enterprise system that started to spread around the world. They looked at you and said, ‘I want to have their life, their freedom, and their stuff, and they threw off their chains of poverty and tyranny.’"