Good Government

Mike Brake | September 17, 2015


Mike Brake


Arthur Brooks is becoming ubiquitous. The president of the American Enterprise Institute is visible on cable talk shows, toe to toe in debate with President Obama, and in a string of bestselling books, the latest of which, The Conservative Heart, is yet another how-to part of the Brooks equation for winning the public policy battles to come.

At its heart—an apt description—is some simple advice to those who would seek to roll back the seemingly inexorable march of statism and restore a national reliance on economic and political liberty. In two words, the Brooks prescription in this volume is, “Be happy.”

The book’s subtitle—“how to build a fairer, happier, and more prosperous America”—borrows intentionally from some of the buzzwords our leftist opponents have deployed for so long to dominate, and often win, the combat of ideas. Brooks is right when he says conservatives have too often countered those “get happy” platitudes from the left with head, not heart. It may be accurate to cite data showing that the War on Poverty has failed, but it won’t win the ultimate argument until we begin tugging at America’s heartstrings and proposing real, compassionate policies that will help poor people be no longer poor.

The Brooks thesis is simple: free enterprise has prevailed in many parts of the globe, especially since the end of the Cold War, lifting hundreds of millions of people, especially in Asia and other emerging regions, out of poverty. At the same time it has largely failed here at home because of our seemingly unbreakable American addiction to government programs as first, second, and last resorts, even when they are proven to be unworkable.

What has helped much of the rest of humanity emerge from the economic dark ages? Brooks cites at least five reasons: globalization, free trade, the enhancement of property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship. Yet here at home, especially during the Obama years, much of the public discussion of economic issues has focused on “income inequality” and more ways for government to try to address it.

“But the American people do not trust us to put those (conservative) principles into practice,” Brooks writes. “Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated that miracle like a state secret.” One reason is the often dour, get-off-my-lawn tone of the discussion from the right.

It’s clear that the liberal prescription for poverty, first set forth under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society/War on Poverty policies of the 1960s, has failed. Brooks notes that while the post-war economic boom of the 1950s trimmed America’s poverty rate from 25 percent in 1950 to 14.7 percent by 1966, those figures have barely budged in the decades since—and that since the Great Recession of 2008, the bottom quintile on America’s economic ladder have actually done worse.

“By any fair standards,” he says, “the government’s war on poverty would be classified as a failure.”

What to replace it with? “Conservatives,” he says, “should be optimists who believe in people.” That means re-emphasizing what he calls his “happiness portfolio,” four traditional ingredients that worked very well for decades before government muddied up the water. Those four pedestals are faith, family, community, and meaningful work.

book-lg.pngThat begins with a conservative recognition that the social safety net is necessary, but only if we transform it from an ensnaring trap to a trampoline that will allow those who turn to it to declare their economic independence. The welfare reform movement of the 1990s was a good start, but the Obama administration has eroded and undercut many of those work-focused reforms.

“Why does America keep returning to this stale, ineffective playbook?” Brooks wonders. The answer is that many on the right have done a poor job of selling pro-growth policies in moral terms, as the right thing to do for the poor.

People, Brooks says, should be treated as assets, not liabilities, with room to grow and improve their lives. He cites a number of instructive new programs, none of them emanating from government, that have created enviable success records in helping poor people escape from poverty and its many pathologies. Work must once again be regarded as a blessing and not punishment, Brooks adds. Americans should remember that values matter, that help and hope are two sides of the same value, and that step one is to reverse the trend toward what he calls “learned helplessness.”

The alternative is decline into the sad state of modern Europe, with its economic stagnation due to generations of social welfare policies, low birthrates, and general despair.

Start, he says, by co-opting that leftist term “social justice” and emphasizing real justice is about giving people opportunities, not the dole.

“An opportunity society has two basic building blocks,” he writes. “First is an education system that creates a base of human capital.” Brooks here calls for an emphasis on conservative education reforms like school choice and performance pay for educators. “Second comes an economic system that rewards hard work, merit, innovation, and personal responsibility.”

Brooks suggests that the Tea Party movement, as it morphs from “protest movement to social movement,” will help steer those policies. He also cites seven habits of truly effective conservatives—be a moralist about policies, be for people, get happy, steal the other side’s best arguments (like social justice), go where we have not been welcome to expand the battlefield, say things in 30 seconds to be precise and clear, and break those old bad habits like “get off my lawn” griping.

Encouragingly, a number of next year’s most promising presidential hopefuls like Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and others are already echoing many of these themes. We and they owe much to Arthur Brooks, who is rapidly becoming a Pied Piper of common social and economic sense.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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