Perhaps Both a Conservative Mind and Heart

With Donald Trump carrying the Republican brand in the primary season so far, thereby defining conservative/libertarian thought in the popular mind, there certainly is trademark confusion about what is conservatism these days.

In this context, it should come as no surprise that Arthur C. Brooks’s The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America has met with mixed reviews. Social conservatives find little in it about their core issues: their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, more libertarian types have called it too accommodating to the welfare state. Even yours truly gave a somewhat mixed review to the Commentary magazine article on which Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, based this book.

Brooks cannot be dismissed, though, and for a couple of reasons. A great benefit of The Conservative Heart is that Brooks is a first-rate communicator who could improve any politician’s delivery. His bottom line is that conservatives are generally thought to be heartless today even though they have the more compassionate program. All they need to do is sell it as such—and in 30 seconds.

One has to grapple with him, moreover, because whenever he seems to be going off the philosophical  reservation, he cites conservative stalwarts such as F.A. Hayek and Ronald Reagan for support. He correctly discerns the bad guys, too. The whole welfare state apparatus, with its arrogant claim to produce human welfare scientifically, is properly traced to Woodrow Wilson and his gang of Progressive public administration intellectuals, who assumed they could solve every social issue if they were granted sufficient power.

Brooks’s conservative heresy is his claim that a welfare “safety net” is not only acceptable, but is a “great achievement” for social welfare (and he cites Hayek and Reagan in apparent agreement). He qualifies this by saying that one must distinguish between a minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, which are requirements, and today’s bloated, bureaucratic, dependency-creating welfare that must be reformed. Indeed, conservatives must be the “guardians” of restricting the net to the “truly indigent” so society is not bankrupted by it. Real compassion is “steely-edged.”

“The central solution to poverty” is work rather than dependency, says Brooks. People deserve opportunity and mostly want “earned success” rather than handouts. He cites Pope Francis to the effect that jobs are required for human dignity. It is degrading and ineffective to simply hand the needy money. Opening opportunity to all requires that the starting line be made “more equal” by better education, more access to jobs, and removal of barriers to entrepreneurship such as gratuitous trade-licensing requirements.

When he gets to details, many libertarians will draw back. He says that a conservative social agenda should “assure” that rewards for work are based on merit and virtue, but does not say how this outcome can be guaranteed. He insists charity is important, repeating his previous research that conservatives prove their compassion by giving more to charity than do bleeding heart liberals. But he insists charity cannot do it all.

Brooks correctly attacks the minimum wage for killing half a million jobs. He advocates, as a replacement, an enhanced earned income tax credit (noting that Reagan first adopted it), but does not say much about the abuse of such credits. He favors charter schools and vouchers for private education, but his expectation that these will guarantee equal opportunity to all asks too much from a human nature he otherwise recognizes as less tractable to good intentions.

The core values of his conservative “social justice agenda” are faith, family, community, and work. He does not mention it, but Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “God, family, freedom, neighborhood, work” –and Brooks even separately supports the God factor. He justifies these not on religious grounds but on the pragmatic basis that people who hold and abide by these virtues are happier, healthier, and wealthier than those who do not.

Community may be one of Brooks’s four virtues, but he does not say much about it. What is missing, as Reagan or Hayek would agree, is sufficient attention to local control and federalism. So much of the Brooks program seems to imply a national governmental effort to direct all of this reform, perhaps using local institutions but under central guidance. That may be a somewhat unfair reading but it is certainly a possible interpretation. On the other hand, it is clear he supports Hayek’s essential insight that central planning is impossible intellectually, given the complexity of human nature, and that might be enough to redeem his as a conservative mind.

Brooks has been identified as part of the “reform conservative” movement, a group of social scientists and journalists who tend to emphasize nationally-run programs and policies. One of its leading lights, National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, has lately responded to criticism from fellow conservatives by talking more about the importance of freedom and decentralization. In a recent debate under the auspices of the libertarian Reason magazine and blog, Levin was explicit:

Large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized, wholesale, technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, incremental ones. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by consolidated jerks of authority from above but by diffuse trial and error from below . . . experimentation, evaluation, and evolution—offer a kind of general recipe for addressing complex social problems while respecting human liberty and acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and power.

In a later discussion, The Federalist editor Ben Domenech expressed himself not satisfied by Levin’s qualifications. Mr. Domenech is one of my favorite young conservative intellectuals but, having criticized the reform conservative program myself in the past, I believe there is enough evidence to grant some sort of dispensation for at least Brooks and Levin to be covered under the traditional libertarian/conservative trademark.