Review of “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America,” by Arthur C. Brooks (2015), and “Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results,” by Robert D. Lupton (2015).
Arthur Brooks has been one of the leading voices for a moral defense of the free market since the Great Recession. As president of the American Enterprise Institute think tank and a scholar in his own right, he has researched and written on charity, social entrepreneurship, and the meaning of happiness. His previous research, insistence on connecting market advocacy to morality, and revitalization of AEI among right-leaning think tanks made me want to like his new book, “The Conservative Heart.”
Although Brooks says he welcomes a broad group of readers, he is clearly writing to his team, and that leaves the book deeply unsatisfying. He speaks of conservatives as “we” and describes the policy and political victories that will result from putting conservative policies in a positive frame.
The problem can be seen early in the introduction: “What the United States needs is a unifying, positive aspirational force to sweep through our national community,” Brooks writes. “American conservatives have a generational opportunity to become precisely this kind of force.”
Libertarians will object that they are actually in better position to accomplish this because they have better ties to liberals on some social issues. Religious conservatives and liberals alike will object that politics can never provide an aspirational force. Pragmatic conservatives might also object that this gave us both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Which Comes First: The Platoon Or The Politics?
In many ways, Russell Kirk was better positioned to accomplish an easier task more than a half-century ago in “The Conservative Mind,” to which Brooks explicitly compares “The Conservative Heart.” Kirk’s book began as his doctoral dissertation in Scotland. His view was that conservatism had been fighting a long defeat. Kirk resuscitated Edmund Burke’s reputation and his notion of the “little platoon” that stands between the individual and the state.
Brooks, in contrast, looks first to government and to new policy prescriptions as he frames his arguments in political terms. This makes sense when one considers the circumstances of each author. While Kirk was young and alone in his writing (save his academic advisor, who did not discuss the book with Kirk or read the manuscript), Brooks is in the middle of Washington and makes a special point to mention AEI’s influence on Capitol Hill.
Like George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” which provided new ways for progressives to frame policy debates, Brooks suggests conservatives just need to market their ideas better. He provides statistics that will affirm conservatives’ beliefs about themselves and their contention that government does not work, but will do little to convince skeptics. For example, conservatives in 2000 gave more than liberals, but a significant portion of their giving is to religious organizations, which progressives do not think of as charity. Similarly, noting that the official poverty rate has not changed in 50 years ignores the effects of government programs towards alleviating the material effects of poverty.
One can doubt the sustainability of government spending, and Brooks reasonably argues that devastating cuts in programs are a result of prior unrealistic promises. Many have made this point before and should continue to, but it has had limited success and seems unlikely to convince anybody soon that people who make mathematically impossible promises should be held culpable instead of those who end up in charge when math finally wins the war.
Blah Blah Blah Government
The transformational power of charity is acknowledged but set aside in favor of the scope of government programs. Again, this is despite criticizing dependence on government as “scientism” that relies on a pretense of knowledge. Brooks breezes by the faith, family, and community aspects of what he dubs the “happiness portfolio” to focus on earned success through work, because this fourth item is not something most people have considered.
In the end, despite making wonderful statements about the values that inform conservative policies, Brooks offers familiar policy prescriptions for familiar reasons. The earned income tax credit is more effective than the minimum wage. Occupational licensing should be eased or eliminated to allow more people to work. School choice is the best way to improve educational performance through application of real market forces.
He adds a new wrinkle from one of AEI’s scholars, Michael Strain, to offer relocation vouchers for the long-term unemployed to find a more favorable job market. Better government policies will fix the problems previous government policies have caused, if only conservatives would tell people they want to enact these new policies because they care.
What if conservatives have lost ground in part because they have focused so much on government—making it smaller or better or smarter—instead of improving the churches and charities they donate to and volunteer with? If conservatives truly believe people are assets, work is a blessing, values matter, and hope is essential, should there not be more evidence of that in the culture?
Toxic Giving Infects Private and Public Life
Bob Lupton may not be a conservative, but he has been a practitioner of poverty alleviation for decades. He moved with his family to a low-income neighborhood in Atlanta and has since helped rebuild one neighborhood after another. Along the way, he has seen what works and what fails across the United States and in numerous developing countries around the world.
He explained in “Toxic Charity,” published in 2011, that much of what has been tried not only does not work, but poisons the giver and the recipient, creating resentment and dependency. Together with Brian Fikkert’s “When Helping Hurts,” published two years earlier, “Toxic Charity” challenged the assumption of most Christian churches and charities (not to mention secular charities and government programs) that giving without expectation of getting anything in return is effective charity.
“Nobody has ever been served out of poverty,” Lupton writes. Part of poverty is the feeling that one does not contribute to the surrounding community. But receiving goods and services with nothing in exchange can leave one feeling he has nothing of value to contribute. If Uncle Ben’s lesson to Peter Parker was, “with great power comes great responsibility,” then it is little wonder charity feels disempowering—it asks the recipient to take no responsibility, so what power can he have? At the same time, generous benefactors may look to Jesus’ words and demand much of those to whom they have given much.
Value is only created through reciprocal exchange. That is why business owners create wealth and redistribute it through government or philanthropy, and why we should look to the potential of for-profit ministry. Social enterprise takes on a deeper meaning in the organizations Lupton profiles than in many benefit corporations, or B Corps, which are intended to balance the interests of owners with benefits to the environment and society but more often provide a veneer of conspicuous compassion to otherwise ordinary consumer purchases.
Giving Fish Versus Teaching People to Fish
Tennessee-based Nisolo employs Peruvian artisans, who made shoes from found materials, to handcraft leather shoes for men and women. Compare that to TOMS, which started simply by giving shoes and services to people in developing countries. TOMS recognized this was not enough, and has since built a shoe factory in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and has entered the coffee business. Food pantries and clothes closets have also adopted more market-based approaches to meeting needs.
While Brooks provides ways “to make us better at expressing the content of our own characters so we become better servants for people in need,” Lupton provides ways “to begin exploring untapped economic opportunities that could be capitalized upon” based on his examples. Fittingly, each author offers a seven-point list for his project. Brooks magnanimously offers to “share with you the same seven lessons I cover with members of Congress”: all about telling the story in 30 seconds with positive, moral language in unexpected places. In contrast, Lupton offers practical steps such as “stop…distributing suitcases” of stuff, offer technical training, provide loans to entrepreneurs, and start for-profit businesses that employ local residents.
It is important for conservatives to adequately articulate their concern for others, but they also need to demonstrate their concern in their actions. Poor articulation is merely a symptom of this greater failure. “The Conservative Heart” is a helpful book of rhetorical tactics, anecdotes, and statistics for those engaged in politics and policy. When they wonder why their audience still seems unconvinced, they can read “Charity Detox” and try applying its advice in their business practices, volunteer activities, and donations.