The "root causes" crowd always had a point about the effects of poverty on political stability. Where their case truly fell apart is in the remedy: economic planning from above. For decades, the "international community" bet on big-ticket state-run make-work jobs and white elephants. The West, including America, is expert at pouring aid into poor countries; it's less adept at teaching poor countries how to stop being poor.
Carl Schramm, the president of the entrepreneurism-boosting Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, wants to change that. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, he laid out the case for "expeditionary economics," whereby the U.S. wouldn't export merely democracy but also the economic policies necessary to sustain it.
Economic growth is indispensable to counterinsurgency theory for obvious reasons. Delivering not just better material conditions, but also the sense that better days are ahead, is at the core of any American sales pitch for democracy. Only a thriving entrepreneurial class can create a healthy middle class, which research shows is essential to democratic stability. The Taliban would still be able to recruit fanatics if Afghanistan had a surging job market, but it would be much harder to win the support of the general population.
Recently, there has been a bipartisan boom in support for microfinancing. But it remains the case that for economic planners, putting your faith in the chaos of the market is akin to letting go of the wheel on the highway.
Which is why Schramm argues that the U.S. military should take the lead in bringing "messy capitalism" to places such as Afghanistan. Entrepreneurialism is surely a mind-set, but it is also a skill. And the United States, of all countries, should teach it -- even if it seems that the Democrats would rather un-learn these lessons here at home.
There's a rich body of research suggesting such an effort would pay off.
According to Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist, the Third World brims with entrepreneurs, but they must work in the black market because the legal economy bars them. In the early 1970s, when de Soto started his work, it took a Peruvian 200 days of full-time work, and staggeringly expensive fees and bribes, just to start a business legally. De Soto estimates that if the world's poor could just be given clear title to their land, they'd gain access to $9.3 trillion in capital, to borrow against or sell.
Even if that's too rosy a prediction, one thing is clear: The way we've been doing things abroad in places such as Haiti hasn't worked very well, while entrepreneurialism at home has fueled staggering economic growth.
And heck, maybe if we turned Afghanistan and Haiti around, we might return to the same policies here as well.