Acton Institute Powerblog

Book Review: ‘The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America’

51If4pLhXLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Leaving behind the dreams of socialism was a painful yet exciting journey for me. More than anything, I rediscovered myself in the process. Instead of a faithful drop within the wave of revolution, I was a unique and unrepeatable individual made in the very image of my Creator. Reading this book reminds me of the many things I discovered about what makes this country great: freedom, chief among them.

Arthur Brook’s book successfully remind us of certain first principles placing the human person at the center of action, as protagonist of a great story of human progress instead of keeping individuals as mere scenery in the drama of our good intentions. In a way, a good portion of the book seems more a defense of certain aspects of the philosophy of Christian natural law—as the author sees it—expressed in conservative principles. That is why we read about the primacy of the person over things or over the acquisition of wealth, the various ways to catalyze human flourishing through economic initiative, the intrinsic goodness of human action, and an insistence on a right order of things toward integral human fulfillment. Tied to that summary of ideas is a call to refine conservative language by finding new ways of communicating these ideas to build a new civilization.

Within Brook’s book there is an affirmation that the mind of conservatism is informed by a set of correct principles about the human person. That anthropological understanding places people first and affirms the moral capacity for self-realization embedded in the fabric of each human person. Conservatism can only rediscover its heart today if it learns anew what it stands for rather than what it stands against. Rediscovering a sense of optimism about the future and about what people can accomplish, a determined affirmation of a belief in an overarching realm of values placing demands on us, and losing the fear for concepts such as “social justice” is of the essence. A set of practical proposals on education, entrepreneurship, and how to help people in need become the “muscle” of conservatism. It is then possible to say that there is an order here also, one that takes us from first principles to practical ones and finally into action. Capturing the high ground of being perceived as fighting for people will enable conservatives to go from a protest movement into a social movement. To move up that mountain conservatives are provided with a set of habits of mind and life.

“Conservatives have the right stuff to lift up the poor and vulnerable—but have been generally terrible at winning people’s hearts” is the way Brooks summarizes his message. Modern-day liberals have been successful in demonizing conservatives, which has a direct effect on the way conservatives react. That reaction reinforces the perception of conservatives as uncaring victim blamers. The strategy has been so successful that even many conservatives have come to believe it about themselves.

The problem is not that conservatives do not have a heart but that they seem apprehensive about showing it by challenging the moralistic proclamations of modern liberals. By being “too brainy” and focusing on policy instead of first principles and moral foundations conservatives concede the land at the top where all can see better.

The creation of a movement for social justice is an important element of the book and is an intriguing proposition to me, as I was raised in a communist household where we lived and breathed activism every day. I did not receive instruction in the catechism of social activism from anyone. The views I once held on ways to help the poor were transmitted to me by osmosis rather than by oration. There, a call to action was consistent and it was based on wonderful ideas such as “solidarity” or the “care of the poor.” It was not until some years later, as I was abandoning socialism, that a clash of paradigms began to brew within me. As I saw the children of those to whom I used to give free things coming for things themselves, I was shaken to my very core. For the first time in my ministry work I felt dissatisfied with what I was doing. I saw that I was simply a “stuff-giver”, a bureaucrat of compassion, and under the weight of the free stuff I was dumping at the poor was their spirit, slouching aimlessly, awaiting. It was as if I had suddenly awakened from a dream and a leap in my consciousness emerged. A new way of being one with the poor abruptly appeared to me as a possibility—even as a demand. I believe that Brook’s book calls conservatives to a similar leap in consciousness.

A critical truth I have come to embrace and one so well-articulated by Brooks is that the human person is not only called to change but also to choose. In pursuit of the safety that a parasitic life offers, some find comfort in the boredom of meaningless life or in the pity of others but Christian anthropology asserts that from the beginning of our lives we are created as subjects, not objects moved by forces; even if these forces are well intended. Becoming brokers and middlemen in a massive welfare giant with a flow of goods passing from one set of hands to another but barely making a dent in the condition of those who ended up with the stuff is not where the conservative heart can be found.

It is here where the idea of right order returns and marks the place where the conservative heart is divided and might not pump in unison with Brook’s vision. A conservative heart informed by its mind and with a soul as the form of its body can have as a goal ending the federal welfare state, not simply mending it. Respect for right constitutional order and a compassion for the poor that brings their care closer to the people can capture the country’s attention and their support. It might also have a better chance to reach the poor in their need.

It is practical and reasonable to give priority to those communities in which the familial encounter exists and where friendship and encounter are real. “We” can take care of the poor without any federal intervention—and “we” does not need to mean the American people through a smaller Federal welfare state. Rethinking civil society along such lines might more easily help conservatives to show their heart without apprehension and involve themselves more closely in those places where they might hesitate to tread. Building a new civilization with extensive local networks of influence and compassion might need a reconsideration the role of the Federal Government, bringing the “we” closer to home.

The conservative heart is clearly divided between those who believe that private charity is enough to solve all the problems of poverty and need—with a possible subsidiary aid from local government—and those who seem to want to encourage private charity and a reform the federal welfare state. Brooks appears to be in the latter camp. Yet, there are other conservative hearts that disagree with such agenda. They affirm that it is true that as a society we can take care of the needy but as the concept of society does not conflate with the state, that task can be accomplished even with no government intervention. If any intervention is needed, what form that intervention will take is a decision better arrived at by the basic, local institutions of society and always with respect to the principle of subsidiarity, even at the local level. The raw fact that even generous private charity today does not account for a large percentage of funds used to assist people could be attributed precisely to a system where government confiscates people’s property to “take care of the poor” and establishes systems of support that both create incentives for less generous giving and detract from resources for the people. If in the end, all resources in the hands of government come from people, it seems that what has been said is that we would not be able or willing to coordinate help for the needy unless we count on central planning and administration. Individuals with more resources at hand are still synoptically delusional or merely uncaring. That is a debatable point, but I do not believe that a compassionate and convincing conservative heart demands such vision.

Moreover, the safety net would more readily rearrange its threads into a hammock if the federal government and its bureaucracies are not avoided. The slippery-slope created by a bureaucracy responding to self-preservation, political expediency, and complexity is even more slippery from afar. Developing a keen eye to detect all the problems of poverty so eloquently signaled by Brooks might have a better chance of occurring if the activities, institutions, and decision-making processes concerning programs to assist the poor are brought back to where they belong: to the states and the people. There, greater experimentation, faster change, and more targeted decision-making will ensue without an attempted restructuring of the federal behemoth along those same lines. The institutionalized human degradation often experienced by welfare recipients, aptly captured in the book through the story of Rosa Lee, could better be averted not just by ending welfare as we know it—whether it is Lyndon Johnson’s reform or any other administration’s proposal—but by severing the care of people from the federal welfare state.

If welfare reform was successful, any success was achieved by pointing the direction for success not by offering hopes of a new reform of federal intervention. Their success could be compared to the success of certain market-oriented elements implemented during Cuba’s “special period” in the 1990s. After losing the Soviet Union’s trade and subsidies economic support, Cuba entered a period where certain capitalist elements operated within and alongside socialist frameworks. That period would profoundly affect Cuba’s socio-economic fabric by bringing to light the inefficiencies and contradictions of socialism. The introduced limited free market elements had some success because they are true, they just could not fully flourish within the socialist framework. Welfare reform demonstrated that applying the correct values to institutionalized efforts can provide some successful outcomes while leaving the question of what level of institutional framework is the more appropriate. The lesson of welfare reform ought to be that it gave us a good reason to believe that these values work and, since we already know that they work more effectively the closer they are to the people, there ought not be a fear in returning these activities to where they rightly belong. If the welfare state can be reduced and narrowed to the provision of certain basic benefits and re-energized with a new set of values, federal intervention would be justified only if communities of a lower order were unable to accomplish those tasks. But who could argue that these conservative values cannot be better lived out without federal intervention? Who could argue that the provision of a narrower set of basic services could not be better accomplished without federal intervention?

It is certainly commendable of highly intellectual conservative minds to propose a number of reforms to welfare and education but that plea should be made to the people in their states. Let freedom and compassion reign in every city, every county, every civic association, and every church. Let the citizens struggle with finding answers, struggle alongside the poor, walk with them, fail with them, and triumph with them. Assistance to those in need that is directly granted through the political community—at any level—weakens the incentives not to see that aid as an entitlement and reduces the place of intermediary associations. If there is a place for a subsidiary role for government in the care of the poor—and I believe that there is one—let the people at the local level determine what the role is.

Making the bold statement of returning resources and decision-making about poverty to the citizens, if we create tangible incentives for people to move in that direction at the local level, and empower churches and civic groups to take the reins of the care of the poor, we will see the conservative heart renew. That decision will tell the nation that we recognize no special knowledge of the federal government to coordinate any activity invested in helping the poor and that a direct connection between the individual and the federal government in this area is neither healthy nor effective. Could it be that our nation is waiting for conservatives to offer some “disruptive innovations,” as Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen refers to them? Offering a simpler proposal that recognizes the power of the dispersed knowledge of the many above the concentrated knowledge of the few by returning the care of the poor entirely to the people might be what our nation hopes to hear from us. The price tag for aiding the poor might soon decrease and a greater variety of more effective, locally centered models might emerge. In a world where the apparent high-end solutions come from the almighty federal government, what we can offer is a different model that might look like a no-frills item but one that reliably brings about positive change.

If instead of a federal company of soldiers fighting the war against poverty with the right values and a conservative heart we return to the little platoons with its local tactical units informed by the same values, I am convinced that the echoes of liberty will find a way. Our conservative heart will be well-served if we change the language of the discussion from one focusing on the values that informed welfare reform and how they can do it again at the federal level—and which call all too readily be undone as we have witnessed in recent years— to a discussion of the ways we can better help people not only alleviate their poverty but how we can help them flourish—a task that The Conservative Heart articulates so well. That intimacy of dialogue can be better had if we offer a bold and profound new vision of civil society.

In the end, the conscience of the conservative heart is to be informed by the first grace it offers: liberty. The Declaration of Independence was sewn with the thread of liberty by offering a presumption of liberty in the heart of every man until those who might intervene in his life give good reason to limit him. The burden is placed on the interventionist. As the realm of rights is not one offering the state a positive enforcement power, federal power—with all its inclinations to act positively and engulf within itself more and more responsibilities—ought to better refuse the temptation to hold the ring of power by transferring all activities on behalf of the poor to those closer to them. Let us rediscover our heart by promoting a U-turn of minimal centralism and maximum liberty that will bring about a new birth of freedom.

Given the range, scope, and depth of the issues related to achieving human integral liberty, given its complexity, the task of establishing a social and political order in which the pursuit of the values that this beautiful book rightfully embraces is not for the faint hearted. Read this important book and then consider, ponder, and pray about its substantive ideas.

Ismael Hernandez

Ismael Hernandez is the founder of the Freedom & Virtue Institute.