Politics & Policy

Conservatives Can Win Debates and Elections by Showing How Their Policies Increase Happiness and Help Citizens

(Juan Moyano/Dreamstime)
In his new book, Arthur Brooks is on a mission to reclaim conservatism.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is a musician-turned-economist who, in his new book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America (Broadside Books. 246 pp. $27.99), makes the case for conservatism in a new way, or at least one not seen in a long time: the moral case for conservatism. Not a moralistic case, mind you: Brooks is not wagging his finger at the world and condemning it for its failings. Rather, his conservatism is one deeply infused with a moral vision. That vision believes that conservatism holds out hope for people — real hope based in the reality of how people live their lives and what they need to make those lives more productive and fulfilling. Brooks’s vision is centered on creating the conditions for human persons to thrive. It is less culture war and more culture forming.

Since Brooks is an economist, the book is filled with data on subjects like market dynamics, productivity, and the effects of social programs, as well as more esoteric subjects such as the science of “happiness.” But, more important, the book is filled with anecdotes about hard-working people who want to better themselves and their families. These are the people conservatives should be winning, and those, at least in recent elections, that conservatives have been losing. Only when the voters understand that conservative policies help actual Americans, and not some vaporish concept like “capitalism,” can conservatives craft and present policies that will win. These will not be policies with some abstract loyalty to the free market; Brooks is not opposed to a social safety net, and he believes conservative policy must recognize the effects of economic inequality and help those less well off. But conservative policy must work to address inequality by creating spaces for people to live productive lives, not turn them into another weapon of ideological warfare. 

The question of poverty and how to alleviate it is central to Brooks’s book. As he notes, American-style capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty and should be the envy of the world. The members of our political class should be doing everything they can to spread to everyone in America the benefits that the free market — unarguably, empirically — has provided. Why haven’t they done this? Because defenders of capitalism can’t find the right way to explain why capitalism is good for everyone, not just the rich or well-connected:

Conservatives are in possession of the best solutions to the problems of poverty and economic mobility. Yet because we don’t speak in a way that reflects our hearts, many Americans simply don’t trust us and are unwilling to give us the chance to implement those solutions.

Conservatives have not acknowledged that there is a problem of poverty and inequality, and thus have conceded the moral high ground to liberals. Between compassion and numbers, compassion wins every time.

But this is not a virtue-free capitalism. The core of the American experiment is the pursuit of happiness, and as it happens, social science has been able to give us some pretty good indicators of what makes people happy. It requires some virtues, including meaningful work, faith, family, and community; it does not, interestingly, require lots of money. Brooks writes that, contrary to doctrinaire materialists of both Left and Right, “economic issues are moral issues. Americans are not materialists. The vast majority of Americans want public policies that are not merely economically efficient, but also morally just.” Conservatives must connect the basic facts about what makes us happy with their policies in order to become a majority.

Conservatives must connect the basic facts about what makes us happy with their policies in order to become a majority.

In sharp contrast, Brooks argues, liberal policies have failed. They have failed to help the people they are supposed to be helping in economic terms. As Brooks notes, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform worked because it was based on the idea that there is dignity in work and that the goal of any poverty program is to get as many people as possible out of poverty. In contrast, welfare during the Obama administration has done little to help, and the income gap is widening. Old proposals, Brooks argues, are not working; as he says “a half-century of conventional wisdom has failed in the fight against poverty.”

Moreover, and more provocatively, Brooks argues that most liberal policies are immoral, based on the framework he has provided in the book. Grand liberal social policies treat people as liabilities rather than assets and consider work a punishment rather than a blessing. Real people know better. In a series of examples from such organizations as the Doe Fund, Brooks recasts the debate over poverty as one about being for people, rather than simply being “against” welfare or big government. These organizations help people by giving them basic job skills, what he calls “pushing the bucket.” Elites may sniff at such work, but that is their bias, and it should not detract from what these programs provide.  Indeed the book is an indirect attack on the elites’ disdain for a middle-class America, a disdain reflected in their policies.

The Conservative Heart has the ability to change the debate about social policy. Brooks is a dedicated happy warrior, and he shows conservatives how they can win this battle.

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