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The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, by Arthur C. Brooks (Broadside Books, 2015)

The Conservative Heart Arthur BrooksThe great Elton Trueblood, who really did write about happiness, said many times that you can write a book of any length, but if you want people to read it, make it around 100 pages. This book is 227 pages (including endnotes) and thus about twice as long as it should be. Indeed, if Mr. Arthur Brooks, the CEO of the citadel of American neoconservatism, had eliminated the pages that contain the term “free enterprise” he would be down near Prof. Trueblood’s ideal length.

And what does “free enterprise” have to do with the “conservative heart?” Well, the author states that “the ideals of free enterprise and global leadership, central to American conservatism (my emphasis), are responsible for the greatest reduction in human misery since mankind began its long climb from the swamp to the stars.” Quite a claim. It’s also unprovable, making it sound noble without having to tell us anything about misery, which every human being I have ever known experiences regularly.

It’s also not the subject of the book. Despite its title, the book is about poverty and how “conservatives” can make citizens (and non-citizens) believe they care about it and them. There is irony in the disconnect between the book’s title and its real subject (probably not intentional irony, but irony nevertheless), especially when the reader encounters “the four values that are most correlated with happiness. They are faith, family, community, and meaningful work. To pursue these things is to pursue happiness.” Mr. Brooks then says something shocking: “The first three are fairly uncontroversial.” One wonders where he has been living these last two decades or so. Faith in an aggressively secular world, the very meaning of family, the location of communal authority: these are the questions that have rent the republic, and are at the very heart and soul of what it means to be conservative or liberal—indeed, to be an American. Yet they are dismissed, except to refer to them as the “happiness portfolio” without explanation, as the book morphs into a discussion of poverty.

In fact, poverty may be the least controversial part of the “happiness portfolio.” Nobody has seriously challenged the concept of a “safety net” since the Eisenhower administration bought into the New Deal, and for Mr. Brooks to call the Clinton triangulation movement on welfare in the 90s “a great moment for our country” is one of the neoconservatives’ more clever obfuscations. They argue, of course, for American “exceptionalism”: a propositional nation, the domestic hallmark of which I have long called in the classroom the “myth of opportunity” (using “myth” in its real sense, a fiction that is too important to be held hostage to mere fact). That this form of exceptionalism is claimed to be conservative, while necessarily accepting almost uncritically the notions of progress and equality that attend it, is to reduce a noble understanding of human nature and natural law to something like “conserving” Truman’s Fair Deal or Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center.”

Poverty, of course, is a worthy subject for discourse. It is also a) highly relative, and b) not a good subject for ideological posturing. To compare American poverty to that of other peoples or other generations (say, to Mexico City slums or the lifetime of my grandparents) is both misleading and unhelpful. It also leads to sentimental generalizations that produce ideology, often covering up the real agenda of expanding government at the expense of the very institutions that make up Mr. Brooks’ “happiness portfolio.”

To put the poverty cart before the happiness horse is a dangerous thing. “Meaningful work” of course precedes government, but not quite so much as faith, family, and community precede all other elements of human society. For work to be meaningful, or fulfilling, it must have an object. We must have something toward which we are working. How many times in the last few years have we heard that we must allow illegal immigration because such people are needed to do jobs that Americans just won’t do? In fact most work is not meaningful or fulfilling unless it is first directed toward feeding one’s family, or holding communities together, or the demands of our faith. Work does not produce faith, or stable families, or good neighborhoods; it is the other way around.

Money_iStock_AlexanderKalinaMr. Brooks works hard on the point that “government can help the poor when it recognizes that poverty is a complicated problem and not a complex one.” That is, there is much good that government (read, central government) can do that “does not always turn people into government-dependent drones.” His distinction between complicated and complex, however, ostensibly a reminder that some problems are within the scope of human understanding sufficiently to be susceptible to practical reason and the reach of government solutions, in reality usually turns out to be nothing more than renaming “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” to “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.” Need proof? Even Mr. Brooks spends much time admitting that all the money, intelligence and political force spent on poverty programs in New Deals, Fair Deals, New Frontiers, Great Societies, and Hope and Change have mostly failed. Maybe poverty is, indeed, a complex problem.

Neoconservatives, being essentially liberals stuck somewhere along the New Deal continuum, still tend to trust Big Solutions which require Big Government. “Billions of souls around the world,” he insists, “have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to five incredible innovations: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship.” Most political leaders, he adds, strive for these Big Solutions “because they truly love their country.” Motives of political leaders aside, why hasn’t poverty changed much since the 1930s?

One reason is that anti-poverty laws are inherently contumacious. They defy authority, even their own. When my grandfather Fuller was a county “welfare agent” during the early New Deal, he actually investigated the unemployed under his watch. He would pick up men and drive them to job interviews, and he knew who the slackers were. Francis Perkins, as Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, made it clear that all solutions to poverty problems that came across her desk had first to be vetted for their potential effects on families. But the complex nature of such contumacious laws caused us to forget very soon what they were meant to do, resulting in a bureaucratic system so vast and so ugly that they existed even before the implementation of the Great Society primarily to feed the authority of large government and to plump up the voting rolls of the Democratic Party. M. Stanton Evans, in his remarkable speech “The Twilight of Liberalism,” said as early as 1976 that the amount of money spent by the federal government on welfare and poverty programs, if simply given directly to individuals who lived below the fictional “poverty line,” would have lifted every man, woman, and child in the country into the upper middle class. But nothing had changed.

In part nothing changed because the perception of poverty constantly changes. In material terms the vast majority of Americans living today in what we define as poverty have much more than I had in the 50s as one of the “rich kids” in town. The material possessions of my wife’s family in the 50s would today put them by almost any measure in abject poverty. The difference was, we had mothers and fathers, we went to church every Sunday, and we lived in a community where people took care of each other without having to be asked. Most of the work done by our neighbors was work that today would be assigned to “undocumented” workers. Yet very few of us were poor.

Mr. Brooks says, “I believe that poverty and opportunity are moral issues and must be addressed as such.” It’s true, and these issues cannot be solved by merely throwing money at them. Although he cites the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey to indicate that most Americans are quite happy (and that conservatives are happier than liberals), he fails to mention the cottage industry of books and articles in the last few years whose authors are scratching their heads over why Americans keep getting richer and complaining more, and are increasingly unhappy.

middle-class-001The chief reason for this unhappiness (polls and surveys aside) is that the great American middle class has been shrinking rather drastically since the early 70s. The shrinkage has corresponded directly to the New Deal’s vision finally kicking in when the Great Society made it unaffordable to a middle class that was expected to pay for it. The crisis of the middle class, however, is not more a crisis of money than the conservative heart is a crisis of hardness toward poverty. The heart of the New Deal (read liberal, progressive) is the heart of individuals, stripped of the institutions that make them human, and enforced by a truly hard-hearted leviathan. It is no coincidence that when authority is sucked out of neighborhoods (especially schools and churches), half of all marriages fail (70-75% initiated by women, leading to polyandry or at least serial polygamy), religious freedom is undermined by the very government committed by the Constitution to protect it (the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Supreme Court!), society bleeds and weeps. No social order in all of human history has ever survived for very long under the guidance of a sexual revolution such as ours, where more black babies are aborted than born in New York City, and where upwards of half of all babies born are without two parents to raise them. The “happiness portfolio” is at its lowest overall value in American History.

Having taken Mr. Brooks to task for a book he did not write, although he opens himself to such criticism with both his title and its philosophical underpinnings, let me also say that the stories he tells and the cheerful good will he finds among his fellow neoconservatives and the sincere heart he has for the poor make me want to give him at least one and a half cheers. If he would only start at the beginning….

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3 replies to this post
  1. I am confused by the reference to “Neoconservatism” throughout this otherwise enlightening essay. The definition of that group is not, primarily, big-government conservatives—those are (contemporary) Republicans. Nor are they merely old leftists. Neoconservatives today are known as foreign policy zealots who clamor for American intervention and provocation–called “hegemony”–everywhere for the attainment of dubious, and exceedingly dangerous, foreign policy goals.

    • As I understand it (correction welcomed) “Neoconservatives” are perceived as essentially Wilsonian (Woodrow, that is) interventionists who are perfectly happy with the Corporation State so long as their wars are well-funded. Whether God’s Own Truth or Total Slander depends on the individual perspective.
      My own point of view is that Neocons are about as “conservative” as Progressivists are “liberal”, which is to say, “Not much”. Both are willing to ramp up the State on their issues (police and military on the one, welfare and PC censorship on the other) without ever ratcheting down what the Other Side hath wrought.
      But, not being politically correct, I am also perceived by some as a bigoted cretin who puts catsup on cottage cheese (ouch, THAT hurts.)

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