A happy, moral fiscal conservatism


Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, has spent the last couple of years pushing the moral case for capitalism. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Brooks effectively outlines how fiscal conservatives can make both a moral and happy case for our principles, as opposed to the stereotypical angry-sounding, coldly analytical arguments shown on TV and on the blogs.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.

Brooks’ solution is simple: people care about morals, and conservatives must recognize this. They must also be happy warriors:

The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien “bourgeois” morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.

By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.

Brooks’ column is worth reading in full, because – and this cannot be stressed enough – he is exactly right. The American people listened to Ronald Reagan because he talked of a brighter future. They listened to Bill Clinton because he appeared to relate to them. George W. Bush was the man people wanted to sit down and have a beer with. President Obama won in 2008 because he spoke in terms the average person could relate to – hope for the future and change from the then-present economic and war circumstances.

It is crucial for fiscal conservatives to be happy warriors and, when necessary, appeal beyond the cold, hard logic of our positions. Yes, we are correct factually and mathematically. But like any entrepreneur, we must sell our product – individual liberty and fiscal responsibility – to our target market in the proper way. As Brooks points out in the beginning of the column:

There is only one statistic needed to explain the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. An April YouGov.com poll—which mirrored every other poll on the subject—found that only 33% of Americans said that Mitt Romney “cares about people like me.” Only 38% said he cared about the poor.

Conservatives rightly complain that this perception was inflamed by President Obama’s class-warfare campaign theme. But perception is political reality, and over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.

President Obama and his allies in the media have done a good job of convincing the American people he cares about them and their children, the facts and realities of his policies notwithstanding. As happy, moral fighters for the future of the nation, let’s take the fight to him. Tea Party Patriots has already begun doing this with our Share Your Story initiative, which highlights examples of how individual Americans are feeling the negative effects of big government. We have other strategies which will come to fruition in the near future.