The Issues America Needs to Talk About | Arthur C. Brooks | Menard Distinguished Speaker Series

Bringing World Thought Leaders To NDSU

In the midst of a hotly contested election, America has been polarized over issues that are both as new and as old as civilization. Free speech, economic inequality, and the influence of others on our lives are topics that have always been discussed in relation to building a better society. 

But in 2020, the nuance to these topics is free speech on college campuses, economic inequity vs average quality of life in a country as prosperous as the US, and the ability to quickly distribute messages and share content on social media. For this nuance, the world needs nuanced thinkers. Enter, Arthur Brooks. Brooks is an American social scientist, author, musician, and podcast host. He focuses on the pursuit of happiness, and how people can achieve it in today’s America. 


Brooks was invited to give a talk by the NDSU Challey Institute as part of the Menard Distinguished Speaker Series, which kicked off on November 3rd. After an introduction from NDSU President Dean Bresciani and Director of The Challey Institute, John Bitzan, the hour-long exploration of ideas began. 

Economic Inequality

The discussion began on the topic of economic inequality in the US and government policy around it. Arthur shared powerful statements saying that government programs meant to curb poverty are often the very thing that exacerbate its existence. He specifically cited The War on Poverty started by Lyndon B. Johnson, and he pointed to the lackluster change in poverty rates after the policies had been instituted.

In 1966, when the War on Poverty programs were finally up and running, the national poverty rate stood at 14.7 percent. By 2014, it stood at 14.8 percent. In other words, the United States had spent trillions of dollars but seen no reduction in the poverty rate.” Brooks said. 

In a 2017 article for Foreign Affairs, Brooks wrote that the War on Poverty “got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop.” He added that, “taking away the incentive to work by paying people to stay home takes away people’s happiness!”

Then, Brooks seamlessly segued to the argument of creating  equal opportunity for all. “It’s important to recognize that the American dream has not been applied equally across the board.” Brooks said that this realization is important for the empathetic response needed to create a more prosperous future. 

Free Speech on College Campuses

Not backing away from hot topics in today’s world, Brooks commented on free speech on college campuses. Brooks said that he sees a lack of tolerance for free speech across the US on college campuses.

Colleges need leaders that have the courage to not shut down ideas…this is America. We need more free speech, not less of it!

“Just bring on the ideas” was Brooks’ suggestion for the mindset colleges should have. He said that young college students need to be exposed to all ideas, and that they’ll be better off for it. Brooks concluded his monologue on free speech by saying we need a culture in which we love each other enough to trust that we have good intent when we speak. 

5 Ways to Address Poverty 

Bitzan then asked Brooks about poverty and his first experience with seeing it on National Geographic. There were pictures from a famine in Africa that struck Brooks as surprising, and he realized that some people had a quality of life significantly worse than his own. But then, Brooks explained that the world has done an excellent job of nearly eradicating poverty, crediting the United States for spreading these five things:

  1. Globalization
  2. Free Trade 
  3. Property Rights
  4. Rule of Law
  5. Culture of Capitalism 

Brooks mentioned that over 70% of Americans believe that poverty has increased in the past decades, which is opposite from the truth. This, Brooks said, is due to the fact that sensationalized news is more engaging and, as a result, the worst parts of humanity are broadcast to the world. 

Brooks explained the concept of a zero-sum game, and why it doesn’t apply to growing economies. “It’s not about dividing up the pie and taking away from some and giving to others, it is about making the pie bigger.”

“I don’t care about more people getting rich, I want more people to be getting out of poverty.” Brooks claimed that this is something the free enterprise system has done. Objective quality of life, where people are not poor, is the goal. Not subjective quality of life, where we compare ourselves to others, not by objective standards. 

Dangers of Social Media 

Brooks then spoke about a topic on which he has written extensively: the harm caused by social media. Brooks explained that during the pandemic people have been using social media more than ever, and this is because they hunger for human contact that they have been lacking. Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, drives our hunger for human contact. We don’t get this from social media, but we crave the human connection that never arrives, he shared. “It’s like empty calories,” Brooks said. Brooks added that we substitute online relationships for our craving for real human relationships, which can easily lead to addiction. The subsequent self-comparison that we see online often leads to unrealistic expectations and a feeling of insufficiency, and sometimes depression or loneliness. 

Some time was spent on talking about equal opportunity for all. “It’s important to recognize that the American Dream has not been applied equally across the board.” Brooks says that this realization is important for an empathetic response that will lead to a more prosperous future. 

The Best Returns Aren’t Money

Brooks shared about  becoming head of the American Enterprise Institute. “All of us have this amazing opportunity to be startup entrepreneurs,” he said, adding that many of the best returns from doing this work are not monetarily significant.

Earlier in his life, Brooks was a musician, pursuing a career as a professional French Hornist, before deciding he needed a career change.  “I needed to understand my life’s mission,” he shared in explaining why he left music early on in his professional career. “I needed my life’s mission to be something that could help people.” He said he wants to “glorify God and lift other people up,” as the great composer Johan Bach once did. 

Relationships > Politics 

The event concluded with a Q&A session. The first question came from North Dakota’s Governor, Doug Burgum, asking about how to navigate friendships in a highly polarized world. 

The first thing is to keep in mind that we all love someone that we disagree with politically.

Brooks said that, at the end of the day, it truly is just politics. The relationships we have should not be weak enough to be broken up by something as unimportant as politics. 


Who is Arthur Brooks? 

Arthur Brooks is an American social scientist, author, musician, and contributing opinion writer for The Washington Post. He was the head of the conservative think tank The American Enterprise for a decade, and is now faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. Brooks is also the author of 11 books, including the national bestsellers Love Your Enemies (2019), The Conservative Heart (2015), and The Road to Freedom (2012). He is a columnist for The Atlantic, host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks, and subject of the 2019 documentary film “The Pursuit.”

Up Next 

The next Distinguished speaker for The Challey Institute will be Edward Glaeser on December 3rd. Sign up here.

Posted on November 12th, 2020 by Zach Johnson in News and Stories