Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Conservative Heart, by Arthur C. Brooks

I think it was Shami Chakrabarti who made a very memorable remark on the BBC's "Any Questions" when she joined the panel with the right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn and the "Red Tory" Phillip Blond. She said something like (this quotation is from my memory):

I think I prefer Richard Littlejohn's kind of conservatives. They just say "We're not going to give you any money." Compassionate conservatives like Phillip Blond say "We're not going to give you any money, but we're going to lecture you instead."

Arthur Brooks does think there is a place for giving money to the poor, but I get the impression he would lecture the poor even more than Phillip Blond. I can easily sympathize with the scepticism that progressives feel towards Compassionate Conservatism. Is it just a coincidence that all the social policies that compassionate conservatives advocate to address poverty cost less money than those advocated by progressives? Are compassionate conservatives really conservatives because of a sense of social justice and not because they want to pay less tax? It is easy to feel a bit cynical about it. Nevertheless, there is a lot that I like about this manifesto for Compassionate Conservatism and I wish there were more conservatives like Arthur Brooks in the GOP.

Brooks is fundamentally committed to fiscal conservatism and free-market economics. He is not a fan of big government. He believes, as I do that capitalism is the best economic system and that it will provide opportunities to the poor to improve their lives. The problem, as he sees it, is that conservatives have done a bad job of selling it. They need to actually demonstrate that they care for the poor and that the policies they advocate will lead to social justice and improved opportunities. He emphasizes that there is an inherent dignity in work and that enabling people to work is central to lifting people out of poverty. There is a danger here that our author ignores the reality of working poverty. He does not say a lot about the working poor, but he does acknowledge them. He suggests Earned Income Credit as a sound measure to address in-work poverty. EIC sounds a lot like the Tax Credits that we have in the UK. My own Conservative Party has tended to criticise Tax Credits and our chancellor tried to cut them quite severely. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some in Brooks' Republican Party want to do away with EIC (please correct me if I'm mistaken!).

Brooks argues that despite spending billions of dollars on fighting poverty since Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, liberals have spectacularly failed to address the poverty in the USA. He concedes that social security has prevented the worst excesses of indigent poverty that can be seen in some countries, but he thinks that Americans would be right to expect more than this. What he is less successful in demonstrating, is that conservative fiscal policies have would have done a better job. He seems to rather take that conclusion for granted. Our author says that it is right that social security exists and criticises Republican politicians for always calling for cuts in food stamps. Nevertheless he claims that almost all conservatives support the need for social security. That is not the impression I get. Most Republicans I have spoken to seem to think that abolishing social security altogether is both practical and desirable.

An organisation called the Doe Fund gets mentioned an awful lot in this book. This is a charity that works with the homeless. It takes people off the streets, it gives them a bed in their shelters and gets them working, cleaning the streets. It teaches those it helps the value of work. Our author cannot stop praising the Doe Fund. He seems to imply that their work-centred approach could be used as some kind of model for social policy, without offering any kind of specifics. It sounds like the Doe Fund do some very good work. However, their model is very specific. They interview potential clients and turn away those they do not feel will be able to fit in with their program. I suspect they probably have to reject quite a lot. I meet a lot of homeless people in the course of my work as a substance misuse worker. I know that a lot of the clients I see would not be accepted by the Doe Fund or else would be kicked out for bad behaviour. Projects like the Doe Fund can help some people, but on a larger scale there will be some people who don;t fit their paradigm. I'm also not comfortable with the 'work-first' approach. It treats housing as though it is a privilege to be rewarded for good behaviour and not a basic need. I prefer a housing-first solution to homelessness.

Brooks points out that conservatives are generous people and shows the statistics that indicate that they give more to charities than liberals. However, as somebody who has worked in substance misuse services for the past seven years, I have noticed that Conservative voters seldom work or volunteer in this field or other services for the vulnerable. Conservatives are very quick to rubbish social services, but you never see conservatives getting jobs as social workers.

What I liked best in this book was his critique of the language and attitude of Republicans. He rightly complains about their negative approach; continually talking about what they are against, not what they are for. He laments that conservatives tend to offer pragmatic arguments that come across as cold-hearted. He also feels frustrated that conservatives are unable to listen to liberals or even have a conversation with them without descending into argument and name-calling. He thinks that the Tea Party could possibly become a positive force for change if only they would stop being an angry minority and identify with the concerns of the majority of Americans, which sounds a little unlikely. I think Brooks has done a bang-on job of identifying most things which are wrong with the Republican Party. The problem is that nobody seems to be listening. I expect he must be finding the current primary elections extremely depressing. Of the remaining candidates, only John Kasich seems to share something of our author's philosophy and his chances of winning the nomination are remote.

I think I would have liked Brooks to say something about immigration, which seems to be a toxic obsession of most conservatives. More importantly, I would have liked him to concede that conservatives do not have all the answers. That maybe sometimes big government might actually be a good thing, that the cheapest solution is not always the best one. Many readers might be left with the worry that Brooks might actually be just another mean conservative, except one who is more ready to lecture the poor about their poverty.


  1. Very interesting thoughts, Matthew!

    You know my opinion about Arthur Brooks (both from having read his position papers and from having listened to him speak on PBS). It doesn't look like he's saying much different here.

    That said, the Doe Fund idea is interesting, but I'm with you in that I'm not sure how it would make for good public policy. In truth, I might even ask how it would differ (when taken as a systemic approach) from the old Victorian institution of the workhouse that Dickens lambasted so frequently.

    Thank you for this review! Definitely a lot of food for thought here.

    1. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting!

      Good point about workhouses.

      If Arthur Brooks fell on hard times and his wife kicked him out, would he want to live in a shelter and sweep the streets?