5/20/2016 0 Comments
Dr. David Cowan
Commonly the GOP is portrayed as the party of greed and big business, while the Democrats are portrayed as the party of waste and big government. Yet, as Arthur C. Brooks discovered in researching the topic, households headed by a conservative are proportionately more generous than those headed by a liberal, despite the latter having higher incomes. Mr. Brooks argues in this important book that for too long conservatism has been a movement of the head and not the heart. Meanwhile progressives have been able to parlay themselves as champions of the poor and dispossessed, the marginalized to use their parlance.
The purpose of the book is to set out a conservative social justice agenda, which progressives and those on the left will jibe is an oxymoron. However, Mr. Brooks is absolutely right, whether or not you agree with his conclusions. Conservatives in America, and other nations, have tended to push the cause of good economic management and business to the detriment of offering welfare solutions to the many social problems that exist in the nation and around the world. This has left the progressives to capture this territory, control the language around it and come off as holding the moral high ground of being the people who care, as opposed to “heartless conservatives.”
The lessons Mr. Brooks has learned which inform his understanding of the problem are fourfold: people are assets and not liabilities, work is a blessing and not a punishment, values matter most in lifting people up, and, help is important but hope is essential. To get these elements of what he frames as the “conservative heart,” conservatives need to get into the game. Conservatives, as Mr. Brooks points out, have provided often devastating critiques of leftist and progressive programs and solutions, but have failed to provide any real alternative, which presupposes there is a conservative alternative to be offered.
There is, Mr. Brooks clearly believes, a conservative alternative. Evidence of this he cites is the existence of a real social safety net, which he argues is one of the great achievements of our free market system and was recognized as such by both Hayek and Reagan. While I can hear an outcry from the left on this statement, I can also hear many fiscal conservatives say there is a difference between having a safety net to catch you and having a trampoline where recipients get to play around, and the welfare system is very much the latter whereby too many people are using and manipulating the safety system to avoid achieving the very things Mr. Brooks sets out in this book.
We hear a lot about how capitalism has successively lifted generations out of poverty, which I discussed in yesterday’s blog, demonstrating the great advantage of the market organization. However, we also hear about the great inequalities, as I also wrote about yesterday. The progressives and left base their policy options on government intervention to resolve this problem. As a way forward, Mr. Brooks has in his mind “four institutions of meaning,” which are family, faith, community and meaningful work, alongside the government safety net.
To make change happen, the conservative movement has to get some skin in the game, and not become like the Tea Party movement simply a remnant, and he offers a strategy of four steps to transform a minority view into a successful social movement:
Mr. Brooks also offers a program that he sees as a solid conservative agenda, or what he frames as seven habits for conservatives to get the attention of Americans and enable social justice. He argues conservatives have the right stuff to help the poor but don’t win the hearts of the people. His seven habits are:
This strategy and program is largely an effective approach to communication, and could be applied to various areas, not just politics and the problems of poverty. The most important points of the seven are points 5 and 6, the former is important while the latter is a sad fact. It is important that people on both sides of the aisle engage with each other and various groups, since encountering that which we dislike or disagree with makes us more informed and usually more tolerant. It is easier to stick your heels in against a person or an idea you objectivize. Sadly, we live in a communications age where people have tine issues and are overloaded by information and ideas, and so having an essential platform for oneself makes it easier to edit our responses.
I created a tool called The Dialogue Box (you can read about it here) that addresses this communications problem, allowing people to understand other points of view and emotions in order to find a way to having more neutral dialogue. This is essential if we are to move solutions forward in a cooperative way. However, more sadly, the current presidential election cycle is making this task even more problematic and the communications strategies both Mr. Brooks and I propose even harder to achieve on any subject!
America’s dependency on complex tax codes, ever-increasing and contradictory regulations, and over-dependency on the legal profession are at the heart of the problem. I agree that the moral habits Mr. Brooks sets out and the communications strategy he proposes are also part of solving the problem, but if all this does is get channeled into government programs and Washington DC pork then there will be no solution. Additionally, I suggest people both conservative and progressive will read this and suggest it is short on real policy substance, they will want to know what policy solutions are being put on the table. However, Mr. Brooks was not trying to tackle the problem on this level; he was looking at the underlying problem and the philosophical approach needed to achieve change.
Which brings me to a disappointing conclusion that there is a danger that Mr. Brooks has essentially put a conservative spin on the notion that ultimately state actions solve these problems. He offers case studies in how bottom-up actions, with government as enablers, can create change. However, if we need government too much as enabler then have we a) really achieved the mindset change Mr. Brooks calls for, and b) will it reduce government or just lead to a different kind of agency role? Only if government growth is truly curtailed will there be any remote chance of success, but this will only be done by forming the moral habits Mr. Brooks defines in his book. This could be a chicken and egg problem, since Mr. Brooks’ argument relies on the need to change habits to change government, but if there is dependency on government then how can we change the minds? Mr. Brooks offers a strategy to do this, but then I suspect we still end up with the question of substance.
The problem of poverty is an outcome of the economic problem of scarcity, and it is solved by a dynamic economy. The helter-skelter growth of government and complex regulation is a friction on growth and diminishes entrepreneurial dynamics, hence economic stultification. The problem is which government or president is really going to do this? Government is about power, which means growing government in rich countries and corrupt government in poor countries. Advocating smaller government for political professionals and bureaucrats is a little like the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.
As Frank Knight argued, as discussed in my blogs this week, there is a need for cooperation based on dialogue, and it is important that people in different camps engage in dialogue to address the problems of poverty. Change will come about through such dialogue, but it will not be dramatic. The solutions to poverty are many and complex, but at the root are the problems of scarcity and the open-endedness of economic progress. Can hearts and minds be won on the basis of facing such brutal economic realities in the emotional environment in which we live? I sadly doubt it, and hence the poor will always be with us.
The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America
Arthur C. Brooks