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.

Donald Devine

Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan's first term.

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  1. nobody.really says

    Nobody.really’s standard retort:

    Brooks’s conservative heresy is his claim that a welfare “safety net” is not only acceptable, but is a “great achievement”…. 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.

    Really? The problem with our social safety net is that it’s too generous?

    So our poor families choose to send their kids to crappy schools, even though they receive ample housing subsidies to live in neighborhoods with better schools, ‘cuz they just love crappy education? So health outcomes for 65-yr-olds improve relative to 64-yr-olds because the aging process reverses at that magic date?

    Admittedly, we are limited by the need to avoid bankrupting society. How fortunate, then, that the US’s gross domestic product per capita has never been higher. Even as the labor force participation rate has been steadily falling. Do these trends suggest something about the relationship between labor and productivity in our current age?

    “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.

    I struggle with this.

    Yeah, the labor market produces great results – when it does. But when has it? Hard to say, because the US has always been tampering with markets; we’ve always contrived policies to shift wealth down the income ladder. So we really don’t have any “pure” markets to analyze.

    I’ll return once again to Economist Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over: The future may well consist of a minority of highly educated people creating and managing automated systems, while the vast majority will earn little or nothing, surviving on low-priced goods created by the first group, living in shantytowns working with highly automated production systems. In support of this thesis, Cowen observes that the median wage for US males declined by about 28% between 1969 and 2009 – before the recent recession. And about 60% of the jobs lost during the recession were in mid-wage occupations.

    So, what if Cowen’s prediction is right? Should we resign ourselves this future, content that it results in a very productive, efficient economy? (And if so, The Road to Serfdom will acquire a whole new meaning.)
    Or should we begin contriving more policies to shift income? And if so, how blatant should such policies be?

    I see a trade-off: We can continue to trumpet the values of labor and work, while continuing to contrive policies designed to vindicate these values – minimum wage laws, earned income tax credit, fair wage laws, workplace safety laws, civil right laws, etc. – even if these policies impair the market’s efficiency. Or we can forthrightly transfer wealth to poor people, but then free employers from the burdens of these social policies – expect for the burden of paying for the transfers.

    Taken to the extreme (what I dub “Checkbook libertarianism”), we’d create a basic minimum income which would basically make labor into a kind of hobby, and then de-regulate the labor market completely. What kind of safety protections should you install in your plant? Whatever you find necessary to enable you to recruit people to work in your plant. Want to demand sexual favors from your employees? Knock yourself out – but good luck keeping employees under those circumstances. We might end up with the future Cowen’s predicted, but with a side order of wealth redistribution.

    But even if this system worked economically, would it work socially? That is, is the sense of being a valued, productive member of society so important to individuals that we really do need to hide our policies that transfer wealth down the income ladder, lest it undermine people’s sense of self-worth?

    And what about the role of work in simply organizing people’s days, of compelling people into a minimum of social interactions? The highest rate of suicide is not among anxty teenagers, but among seniors. Remember Elie Wiesel’s Night: If you can give a person a belief that he as a social role – even if the belief is delusional — he can survive much better than if he lacks that belief. This may be the secret to religion’s adaptiveness.

    If everyone had the economic wherewithal to become hermits – especially in a world in which most of us would have to acknowledge that we’re not a member of the productive cognitive elite – would that lead to a better social outcome overall? Churches are often seen as a kind of mutual aid society. Yet evidence shows that when people get sick or lose their jobs, the first thing they do is stop participating in churches. While religious congregations vary tremendously, the Pew Studies show that on average churches are becoming the provinces of the educated and well-to-do.

    Or would blatant wealth transfer loose its stigma if it were practiced more broadly? After all, it’s not clear that Social Security or public education has undermined the American ethos to any large extent, or that Alaskans are especially anti-social merely because they receive an annual check from their state.

    Many practical problems – regardless of how we use the term “conservative.”

      • gabe says

        Oops – that was not a reply to Nobody’s rather interesting post. It was supposed to be a regular comment.

        But now that I think of it:

        Nobody: here is a link that you may find of some interest: It goes to Devine’s critique (along one stream) and may also serve as a counter to what I suspect the Prof. Frohnen would characterize as your “unitary” approach to political policy making. Enjoy!

        http://nomocracyinpolitics.com/2015/12/09/the-problem-with-the-ancient-greeks-by-bruce-frohnen/

        • says

          ” . . . the real lessons we can glean from the Greeks . . . have to do with the permanent goods of virtue and order in the soul, as well as the natural origins of public and political life in the family.”

          Virtue had better be good for life, because in the afterdeath, body mind and person may be dead.

          “But what Strauss emphasized, and what his followers continue to emphasize in dealing with contemporary politics, is the permanent nature of the tensions between individual and civic virtue and the requirements of statesmanship to bring the two together into a harmonious whole that will serve the public good.”

          Our group, A Civic People of the United States, proposes private pursuit of personal motivation and inspiration with civic well-being, or simply personal liberty with civic well-being. We propose the gradual replacement of opinion-based law with physics-based ethics. Physics is energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges; everything includes science, religion, politics, lies, evil, ethics–everything. A civic people collaborate to discovery how to benefit from physics and thereby establish the physics-based ethics. Philosophers, lawyers, sociologists, scientists, the clergy–everyone contributes to the collaboration, except those of We the People of the United States who, for one reason or another, want domestic alienation. An overall culture of a civic people enables every no-harm preferential association or society to flourish.

          “For those who seek to understand nations, their constitutions, and the permutations of their public lives, this requires in part that we reexamine the past with greater attention to the traditions and circumstances that helped produce the constitutional republic now in such danger and disarray.”

          After 226 years governance under theism, we observe that personal gods just do not offer the bedrock of civic morality that a people will abide. However, physics is the bedrock that does not respond to opinion. A collaborative people may use the literal preamble to the constitution for the USA to coordinate civic issues and physics-based ethics to determine civic morality, keeping religious moralities private.

          “A compound republic cannot do its job of protecting ordered liberty if the people treat it as a mere unity. Only then can we renew the fundamental associations in which our real virtues are fostered and may flourish.”

          I missed the essay’s establishment of both “compound republic” and ordered liberty. However, the only unity worth the effort is civic well-being with personal liberty. Thus, if ordered liberty implies that each person privately pursues what motivates and inspires him or her and simultaneously contributes to civic well-being, it’s acceptable. If ordered liberty requires the imposition of some opinion, such as the requirement of theism or the supremacy of some class of a civic people, chaos will prevail. IMO. Opinion-based law must yield to physics-based ethics.

  2. says

    Thank you, Donald Devine, for a rich post and list of books to undertake.

    Federal influence on the GDP over the last seventy years favored elite-adult satisfaction rather than child security and well-being. For children, the USA is low-rated among developed nations. Each USA newborn faces $4.6 million in national debt, and the elite perceive their wealth will shield them from woe. Consider who’s growing the national debt.

    Robert Putnam explains the woe in his 2015 book, “Our Kids.” But he does not identify the cause. I think the cause is the Edmund Burke and Adam Smith inspired proprietary capitalism the USA adopted from Great Britain and advanced by James Madison on others in 1789. (I feel influenced by Levin’s The Great Debate.)

    Quoting Devine’s post, “The core values of [Brooks] conservative ‘social justice agenda’ are faith, family, community, and work.” This is Burke’s legacy favoring the elite. For a civic people, the word “work” must be replaced with “working to invest.” The path out of poverty is living on 85% of earnings and investing so as to become both a consumer and an owner of American capitalism. If a person collaborates by fulfilling a civic need, his or her income should be sufficient to allow that 15% for savings. The necessary income numbers can be gleaned from the GDP and average cost of living.

    And what keeps a civic people from recognizing what is happening is Chapter XI Machiavellianism. The elite partner with the church and live high on the hog; the people neither rebel nor leave the country, expecting their personal god to relieve them–in their afterdeath. The people overlook that “posterity” in the preamble to the constitution for the USA is personal: my children, my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.

    A pride of nine opinionated elites debate issues they opined to debate, listen to the opposing opinions, cast opinions–often 5:4, especially if tradition (opinion) is at stake–weaving a system of opinion on opinion no one can fathom. There’s no bedrock for civic morality. “Civic” means ineluctable connections by living at the same time and place—same space-time—rather than “social” which involves preference or class.

    Humankind is slowly supplanting opinion-based law with physics-based ethics, even though scholarly law does not yet recognize it. Physics is energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges; everything includes science, religion, governance, and ethics. Physics is the bedrock of civic morality. Albert Einstein hinted at this first principle of civic morality but could not overcome the word “science,” a study.

    A good example is slavery. Physics informs that a person cannot own another person without force. Humankind has discovered that force is immoral except to resist force. Humankind discovers the emergences from physics, works to understand how to benefit from each emergence, acts accordingly, and thereby establishes physics-based ethics.

    Physics is informing us of the folly of “religious freedom,” as it conflicts civic law. For personal liberty with civic well-being, the law should protect personal thought, a civic duty, rather than religion, an insatiable institution. The First Amendment must be reformed respecting the religion clauses. (My response and current events inspired this last paragraph, so, readers, please forgive me for wandering beyond the Donald Devine post.)

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