We all love a good entrepreneur story. These stories are threads in the fabric of Americana. From the barbershop owner to the bold inventor like Henry Ford, we love these stories. At their genesis, at least. But do we love when these businesses become big? What about when they start interacting with other businesses in the global marketplace? Do we believe free markets are good news for the poor?
My experience tells me we do not. Indifference is normative, as if commerce exists almost as a nonfactor for the poor. Scorn is the most-vocal response to free market capitalism. I conjure distasteful images when considering concepts like multinational corporations, Big Business, factories, and globalization. Among the images I summon are sweatshops, the 1%, boycotts, child labor and executive caricatures like Mr. Burns.
To combat these images, we create pithy “alternatives” to appease our concerns, frontloading the questionable concepts with nicer adjectives. Small business. Social enterprise. Local business. These clarifiers are good, but when it comes to alleviating poverty, they are tinsel and ornaments. The free market is our tree. When we add clarifiers, the danger can be that we miss the impact of plain ol’ business. Vibrant commerce–in even its most ordinary varieties–is the engine that lifts the poor out of extreme poverty.
By overwhelming margins, free market capitalism has enabled more people to escape poverty than any system in the history of the world. Yale University and The Brookings Institution released a staggering study to join the chorus of research validating this claim: In 1981, 52% of the world’s population was unable to provide for their basic needs like housing and food, living below the “extreme poverty line.” By the end of 2011, just 30 years later, that percentage plummeted to 15%.
Yale and Brookings state the chief reasons for the unprecedented drop are “the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance.” This is the “potent combination” behind the plunging poverty levels. It doesn’t mean the 85% of us above this line are living large—attending college, taking vacations and the like—but it does mean we won’t die from inexcusable and preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea. It makes me wonder: How can we respond to this with indifference or scorn? Why aren’t we shouting this from the rooftops?
Entrepreneurship is not a white lamb, however. Let’s not forget the despots who enslave little girls and trade them across borders like they are bags of grain. These unfathomably evil traffickers are, well, entrepreneurs. As are the drug runners. And we don’t have to look far to know economic prosperity doesn’t alone prosper. And it is in this human brokenness–certainly not unique to any economic system–where immense opportunity lies for the Church, people like Rick who actively war against these evils.
Like all of us, I love to share a good entrepreneur story and I’ve shared many this year, some here and a few at Christianity Today’s exciting This is Our City project. I’ve shared these stories—from pigs to bike helmets—because they are worthy of it, stories replete with bold risks, profound justice and stirring impact.
My grandpa loved people well and it showed in the way he ran his business. Ethan Rietema and Steve Van Diest upend the mattress industry by providing a restful buying experience. Reyna overcame blindness to start a business that now provides for her family. Brian saves lives by selling solar lamps to hundreds of thousands of families around the world. Steve Hill and Jim Howey breathe dignity into what appears to be an ordinary warehouse. These leaders—on construction sites, shop floors and in strip malls—take the mission of God forward. They are not our extras. They are not supporting actors relegated to check-writing and church volunteerism. They are members of Christ’s body, tasked with very important jobs to do.
These remarks are adapted from a talk I gave in Washington, D.C. at Entrepreneurship in the Developing World, an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute: Video | Polished Transcript. The event was a response to Bono’s recent “humbling” observations about the role of entrepreneurship and capitalism in helping the poverty-stricken communities of the developing world.