Social Justice for Conservatives

Review: Arthur Brooks, ‘The Conservative Heart’

Arthur Brooks / AP
July 19, 2015

When articles are written about the American Enterprise Institute, space is frequently devoted to cataloguing the eccentricities of its president, Arthur Brooks. Brooks is not a stereotypical, or even typical, conservative. In his 20s, he was a professional French hornist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, and politics was far from his mind. He changed tack a few years later, earning an economics degrees by correspondence and entering academia. Now he is president of a Washington institution that is working to recast conservatism in both its practice, and its perception.

Brooks presents a stumbling block for those who imagine conservatives as heavily bearded duck hunters from the heartland. His sense of style is trim, colorful, and European. He trots the globe to derive inspiration from gurus. He brought the Dalai Lama to AEI’s office off K Street, prompting much confusion from left-leaning journalists who suspected the think tank might shortly issue a ransom note.

The media does not know what to make of Brooks, a fact that indicates he is succeeding in his political project. He writes jokingly that he is launching a "sneak attack" on the other side by challenging deeply held misconceptions about which ideology has more to offer the poor.

The Conservative Heart is his latest salvo.The book starts with an ancient question: What makes us happy? The academic literature, to which Brooks has contributed, identifies four principal factors: faith, family, community, and meaningful work. This is not as restrictive a finding as it seems at first. Individuals who possess these four factors run a broad spectrum from, say, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism to the Roman Catholic president of a conservative think tank.

Happy people are a diverse bunch, but they tend to possess those four factors—factors which are increasingly absent at the economic bottom of American society. Atomized communities, empty pews, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and long-term unemployment have precipitated a crisis in this country because they threaten the pursuit of happiness. "Nothing should trouble" believers in American values more, Brooks writes.

The current welfare system is ill-equipped to face the challenge. The dozen or so assistance programs enacted in the past 50 years are a "nameless, faceless wellspring of poorly directed resources" that can relieve the worst privations of their recipients but generally do not provide them with the escape velocity to attain a better life.

Worse, the programs tend to discourage the very habits that will make those with limited means happy. The erosion of work requirements for welfare under the Obama administration is just the latest barrier to uplifting change for the poor. AEI scholar Charles Murray popularized the existence of "marriage penalties" in welfare in the 1980s. Additionally, government largesse can smother voluntary associations like churches and private charities, which are the building blocks of faith and community. Brooks writes that "there is so little private charity in Europe," where the safety net is all-encompassing, "that I have a hard time tracking down data."

When taken together, these unintended consequences communicate a simple but pernicious message to the poor: "You can’t do it, so we’re going to carry you." The possibility of fulfillment is traded for relief from extreme privation, a fool’s choice. Conservative reformers, in Brooks’ view, should seek to maintain poor Americans’ material gains while restoring an upward path to a better life.

The most moving chapter of The Conservative Heart describes a private religious charity that does exactly that. For years, George McDonald and his wife handed out sandwiches to the homeless in New York City. After much thought, they decided to open a homeless shelter, the Doe Fund’s Harlem Center for Opportunity. The premise is simple. After passing a screening process and agreeing to the rules of the house, participants are given a room with access to generous facilities, including a library and entertainment room. In exchange, they work every day to clean the streets of their city—unglamorous work that participants affectionately call "pushing the bucket." A chunk of the income derived from their work is saved so that they have a tidy sum in addition to marketable skills waiting for them when they graduate the program.

The center has been a remarkable success, and it is not hard to see why. For the first time, the most marginalized members of society were treated like assets who could contribute to their communities, rather than liabilities to be pacified with an onslaught of services. The Doe Fund "really believed I could do something," program graduate Dallas Davis told Brooks. "And that it was worth paying me to do it."

"Smart" welfare reform is intended to emulate this uplifting model of poverty relief. As Brooks recounts, some of the most innovative ideas to this effect are coming from the right. Transfer programs with perverse work incentives can be replaced by an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, for example. "Relocation vouchers" can be offered in lieu of unemployment insurance to help poor workers move to areas with available jobs. These ideas are gaining favor with top politicians. When Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) announced a welfare reform plan at AEI last summer, it met with somewhat positive reviews from the mainstream press.

Somewhat. One sensed the same trepidation from the reporters who covered Ryan’s—quite genuine—push for poverty relief that one senses in coverage of Brooks, as though they expect their subjects to take off human flesh masks at any minute to reveal the reptilian objectivists beneath. This disconnect is partly due to bias, but as Brooks admits, conservatives deserve most of the blame: "Conservatives have the right stuff to lift up the poor and vulnerable—but have been generally terrible at winning people’s hearts."

So Brooks spends the final third of the book laying out a bold proposal for a "conservative social justice movement" by way of smart policy coupled with warm, moralizing rhetoric—to convince skeptical Americans to give conservatives a shot at welfare reform like they did in 1996, with considerable success. The current slate of Republican candidates should listen to Brooks’ advice.

Published under: AEI , Book reviews