Cynthia M. Allen:
When debates over highly ideological issues like abortion erupt, one of the most common attacks on conservatives is that their support of pro-life policies is hypocritical.
Conservatives, some say, claim to be moral, then oppose publicly funded programs like food stamps and welfare, whose beneficiaries include many children.
Feed the children we have, don’t create new ones and let them starve – I’ve heard liberal after liberal say, as if the choices are mutually exclusive.
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While that argument is irrelevant, it does hint at a hard truth of conservatism in modern America: the perception that it’s heartlessly pragmatic, ruthlessly efficient and utterly oblivious to the plight of poor and struggling people.
None of those things are true, but few people believe otherwise.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, calls this “the crisis of confidence in American exceptionalism – and in American conservatism.”
“The defenders of free enterprise have done a terrible job telling people how much good the system has done around the world,” Brooks writes in his new book, “The Conservative Heart.”
Indeed, capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty and deprivation than any other system.
Yet the narrative that free market policies are rigged to create permanent classes of haves and have-nots remains, because in spite of evidence to the contrary, most people don’t believe that conservatives care a thing about the poor.
That’s largely because policymakers on the right have focused on making economic arguments instead of moral ones. Conservatives are adept at talking about economic growth, but they completely miss that the most important element of free enterprise is the way it enhances human flourishing among those who need opportunities the most.
As Brooks explained in a recent interview, government welfare programs, largely the creation of so-called progressive policies, treat people as liabilities to manage.
Policies that spring from conservative values – those that seek to affirm the value of work and the dignity of every human being – see people as assets to develop. Every human being, born and unborn, has limitless potential.
This distinction is essential to creating public programs that do more than just feed and clothe the poor.
The federal safety net does have a role to play. In fact, Brooks implores conservatives to “declare peace on the safety net principle.” Not only is it necessary, but caring for those in need is at the heart of conservative morality.
The problem with the safety net in America is that it has instead become a diffuse and ineffective web of programs that crowd out opportunity and discourage work. And since Brooks contends that work is the ultimate source of happiness and dignity, many of these liberal policies, however well-intended, do tremendous harm and minimal good.
Last year’s battle over extending unemployment benefits illustrates Brooks’ point. Several studies, including one by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found Congress’ continued extension of benefits only served to keep more people out of the workforce and on government assistance.
A report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more children are living in poverty today than during the Great Recession. That’s despite massive increases in spending on public education, healthcare and government assistance programs.
The primary difference between liberals and conservatives, Brooks told the Federalist Radio Hour, is that liberals measure success by getting government services to people who need them, and conservatives measure success when they help create an environment where fewer people need them.
Conservatives have the best solutions for moving people out of poverty. It just seems some don’t know it. That’s a loss for both conservatives and the people for whom they should be fighting.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.