The term “conservative” has taken significant hits to its credibility in the last few years as it has become identified with many things that, when examined truthfully, are not either not worth conserving or, in fact, romantic idealizations of something that never really existed. It does not help that in the American two party system “liberalism” has been claimed by Democrats on the left, which naturally leaves the opposite of that to become Republican “conservatism.”
Perhaps with a wink and a nod, we can assume that Republicans still represent something akin to fiscal conservatism (though that is highly in doubt given the most recent budget proposal). However, accepting there is a higher likelihood of fiscal conservatism on the right than the left, that leaves Republicans as the killjoys of the welfare state, more often presenting lectures on the economic infeasibility of radical redistributionism than a vision for the good of the nation. It is in the latter that a true conservatism would reside.
Arthur Brooks seeks to recapture and rehabilitate true conservatism in his book, The Conservative Heart. Among thoughtful conservatives, there is a strong desire to pursue human flourishing broadly. In fact, the vision of truth, beauty, and goodness is at the very center of traditional conservatism.
Many contemporary conservatives have lost their way and become drawn into merely not being socially progress and fiscally irresponsible. However, when your greatest argument is an appeal to the cultural sentiments of the 1950s (which were pretty hellish for people of color in these here United States) and a bunch of charts and figures that reveal the inevitable demise of a culture that is rampantly financially irresponsible, you will rapidly lose your audience.
Brooks is arguing that true conservatives need to work to regain a holistic vision of human flourishing that builds on economic reality, but focuses on a virtuous ideal of mutual flourishing of everyone in society. That is, he is arguing that conservatives reveal their heart for the well-being of all citizens our world, especially those who are at the bottom end of the economic scale.
Like most advocates of market economics, Brooks sees individual pursuit of happiness with enrichment of the common good. He addresses the futility of our current spending on welfare, but, to be clear, he favors a robust safety net. However, he argues the conservative vision for a social safety net should emphasize equipping to get out of poverty. Too often, social assistance has been structured in ways that make it difficult. At the same time, some on the political right have begun to see attacking the down and out as a winning strategy (on the left they insult “guns and religions” of the “deplorables”); this needs to be rejected by true conservatives.
Instead, Brooks argues conservatives ought to work to make work meaningful and readily accessible. We should discuss our vision for easy access to markets, especially for the poorest of the poor. This includes rolling back unnecessary protectionist laws that are designed to disadvantage need entrants into the market; it is the poor who often lack the resources to get licenses required for jobs they often have the skills to perform. Enabling economic participation is a better path to social justice than pure redistribution: it both assists and ennobles; conservatives have that vision in their past and need to make it happen.
Ultimately, Brooks is arguing that conservatives lack vision and spend too little time communicating the bits of vision they actually have. In some ways, self-styled conservatives need to change their positions to be more consistent with their historic roots. In many other way, the same people need to spend more time working and speaking for positive outcomes rather than heaving rocks across the aisle for the people who have often captured the hearts of the needy, but have a deficient plan to assist them.
Brooks is a winsome communicator who consistently believes the very important ideas that there is a true, good, and beautiful that conservatives should be pursuing. He actually wants to see lives improve and the world made a better place, which is different than the common partisan quest for power. In short, the ideas of this book represent some of the best aspects of conservatism and provide some practical steps for real, principled conservatives to step up and begin to make changes for the better.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.