The Conservative Heart

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”— Leo Tolstoy

Readers of this site might sometimes get the feeling that I’m too critical of conservatives. Admittedly, I do spend a fair amount of time trying to bring a more thoughtful, positive approach to conservative principles. My ultimate goal is to show readers a side of conservative policy and politics that they won’t get from many news sources. Conservative outrage in the Obama era has done little to actually help get our country back on the right track. The Republican party has become the party of “no,” the party of my way or the highway, more tyranny in the minority than noble opposition. Our country’s prestige has waned as a result — a dangerous symptom of the disease that I argue is due in some part to conservative intransigence.

Granted, there is much to be upset about. But we must heed the wise counsel of Leo Tolstoy and Ghandi when they urge that those who want to change the world must start with themselves.

Luckily, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, has given us a great gift. He has written a book called “The Conservative Heart,” that describes what being a conservative really means more eloquently and persuasively than I ever could.

A while back, I saw a segment on John Stossel’s FoxBusiness Network show in which passersby in Times Square in New York had a camera stuck in their face and were asked, “What is more important for helping people, capitalism or charity?” Unsurprisingly, most answered charity. Arthur Brooks begins his book by examining this all too common misconception that many people in our society hold:

“Consider the circumstances of the world’s poorest people — those who live on a dollar a day or less, which is a traditional measure of starvation-level poverty. This percentage has fallen by 80 percent since 1970, adjusted for inflation… Billions of sounds around the world have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to five incredible innovations: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship.”

These conservative principles have made possible a better standard of living for so many people around the world. But things at home haven’t gone so well. Poverty rates within the United States have remained remarkably stable since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the “War on Poverty.” What’s gone wrong? Brooks’s answer is simple: conservatives have forgotten what is written on their hearts. The turmoil of the moment has led us astray.

Any soul searching must begin with some basic principles. We do (or should do) this often in our own thoughts: what is it that I want to achieve? What is it that truly makes me happy? Is my life structured in a way that will help me to achieve these things?

Everyone is going to have different answers to these questions, but those who can find honest, wholesome answers often find that they were better off for the exercise. Conservatives should perform a similar exercise. We must define what it is that constitutes success. What do we want for America that will help our country continue to fulfill its highest potential?

Brooks has spent years doing economic research on what it is, exactly, that makes people happy. His findings amount to a resounding affirmation of conservative principles. Brooks has identified four areas of life that form a “happiness portfolio” they are:

  1. Faith
  2. Family
  3. Community
  4. Earned success through work

The trick is to create a society where these things are easier for people to focus on. Government policy applies mostly to the fourth item in the portfolio. And it is in this area that our government has failed us.

Brooks argues that the current social safety net has done little more than guarantee a minimal, miserable standard of living for most people. We are missing the crucial point in waging this noblest of wars: people gain happiness in part by earning their own living. While no one argues that a minimum standard of living should be provided for the truly indigent, the fact is that rather than helping the downtrodden find meaningful work our social safety net actually hinders its beneficiaries from achieving earned success through work.

Brooks provides a brilliant illustrative comparison: Dharavi, India vs. Cadiz, Spain. Dharavi is what many liberals would condescendingly describe as hopelessly poor and a victim of globalization. But what Brooks shines a light on is the fact that Dharavi is actually on the up-and-up, despite what on its face is shocking poverty. Compared to what it was just a few years ago, it is a land full of opportunity and promise; the residents show it. They are optimistic, full of hope for their future. Dharavia is a fine example of how a free market can turn things around in a very short time.

Compare this to the plight of the millennials in Europe. Brooks chooses Cadiz, Spain to illustrate his point, but he might have chosen quite a few different European locales. He describes how

“fully one-quarter of people aged 15–29 are neither working nor in school…” and “Many young Spaniards… live with their parents, and few have any plan to move on with their lives. This situation is so common that Spaniards have invented a new nickname. The call this generation ninis… they’re people who neither work nor study- ni trabaja, ni estudia.”

Further, when the U.S. Government offered a program that included 600 all-expense-paid jobs for young Spaniards to come teach Spanish in America, only 300 people applied. Apparently, a free trip and guaranteed job in an exciting new land doesn’t appeal to this generation.

This contrast exposes the inherent problem with liberal policies: that material redistribution is the answer to the problems that plague America. In reality, Brooks shows, we are barking up the wrong tree.

Brooks tosses out a menu of ideas like regulatory reform that supports individual entrepreneurialism, education reform that fosters marketable skills rather than liberal education, expansion of the earned income tax credit, etc. These are all great ideas, but focusing on specific policy proposals isn’t the primary message of the book.

The central theme is that rather than a message of “cut spending” and “starve the beast,” conservatives must change the tone of their rhetoric into something more moralistic, “fighting for people, not against things.” We must dub ourselves the true defenders of poor, because that is what we really are. We have lost the perception battle with Democrats, who are viewed as more compassionate and caring.

We are the ones who know how to make the social safety net more sustainable for the truly indigent, while putting in place polices that will encourage the dignity of work, rather than promoting”redistributive fairness,” as our misguided liberal friends would like to do. We are the adults in the room. It is our duty to broaden the appeal of our ideas because of our ability to make America as great as it could be.

Brooks ends his book with a chapter entitled “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives.” Here he spells out how conservatives can get back in the game of winning hearts and minds. He exhorts us to “get happy”, to “steal all the best arguments” and to “say it in 30 seconds or less.” Good points, all, but they can be summed up by simply looking back to a little-remembered facet of the greatest conservative of our time, Ronald Reagan. His style was tenaciously positive — he made people believe that conservative policies could get America on track by his sunny demeanor and unquenchable optimism.

Beyond our perception problem, the strength of Brooks’s argument rests in the simple fact that everything that we need to convey to others is true. Free-market principles have made the world a better place for the poor. Earned success through work, combined with the rest of the happiness portfolio is the only real way to lift a person out of poverty. Material redistribution is a hopelessly destructive solution.

The burden is on us to change the tone, and we can start by recommending this book to all our politically aware friends.

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