Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, began AEI’s new “Vision Talks” Monday with “a conservative vision for social justice.” His condemnations of current conservative attitudes towards the poor and the communication gap between conservative leaders and the impoverished they would like to help rang painfully true. Progressives’ attempts to solve the problem of poverty have failed. It’s time for a conservative plan to help the impoverished achieve the fullest expression of the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In doing so, conservatives must guard against abstracting the humanity of impoverished persons just as progressives do.
Brooks’s primary point was that the poor are getting poorer, the rich richer, and that is neither a falsehood nor a political statement. He noted that while one can forecast the economy growing 2.5 percent next year, it is more accurate, and more informative, to realize that the top half of the economy will grow 5 percent, while the bottom will not grow at all. Brooks didn’t begrudge the wealthy their wealth, but noted that this arrangement leaves people destitute. The war of ideas is won by people and for people, and Brooks argued that conservatives far too often talk about money rather than people. That leaves the poor thinking conservatives care more about fiscal policy and the rich than them. That’s something that needs to change.
Conservatives should be fighting for communities and culture, not fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is important—no one can work when there are no jobs—but it is a means to the end of human flourishing. We’ve been sidetracked from the “little platoons” Edmund Burke wrote about by fighting over the economy as an end in itself. The partnership between private and public institutions to assist the poor among us that Brooks and his fellow speakers advocated for is a good thing. And it is encouraging to hear of welfare programs, like the ones Robert Doar ran in New York City—built on requiring and rewarding work, and promoting two-parent families and a strong economy—that have successfully provided a path into the middle class. There remains, however, a temptation in this to distill the poor into an idea just as much as fiscal policy, to talk about helping the impoverished in general without remembering the poverty of your neighbor. It’s the same sort of abstracted view of man that created the Reign of Terror.
Progressives like their “brain trusts,” and will gleefully legislate your life for your own good. A glance at the last decade of welfare policy and the state of poverty today shows how well that works. Conservative efforts to provide for and protect the poor must be built on relationships and care for individuals, not social principles applied to abstractions of poor persons. That’s the difference between the nanny state and the care that is potentially provided by public and private partnership. The conservative vision of social justice is that of the Good Samaritan. It is a fraternal love that meets needs and helps the poor along their journey, not leaves them behind. It looks upon and loves the human being.