Arthur Brooks tries to add a new layer of varnish to an old GOP agenda.
By Daniel Oliver
The American Conservative
March 11th 2014
The soul of the Republican Party, always assuming it has a soul, is back in play. Arthur Brooks has written a piece in Commentary decrying conservatives’ reluctance to articulate a social justice agenda. Peter Wehner lauded the piece in his column in Commentary. Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff dissented from Wehner’s defense of the term “social justice,” and Wehner responded.
Inside baseball? Perhaps. But it’s spring training for the big game in 2016, and that game will decide, in the short term at least, the fate of the nation.
Brooks lays out his view of the problem. Under Obama’s policies, the rich have been getting richer—they’re all Goldman Saxons now. Meanwhile, the poor are suffering—indeed, have become desperate. A smaller percentage of Americans are employed than at any time since the Jimmy Carter daze, and a higher percentage are on food stamps than in 2009—almost 50 percent more, Brooks says, although he doesn’t mention that food stamp eligibility requirements have been reduced in recent years. Clearly the president has failed to achieve his goals, but that won’t stop the Democrats from campaigning on issues like income inequality. What conservatives need, Brooks says, is a social agenda of their own.
Some of what Brooks says may be true, though it is simply not clear how many people are really, really poor. Nevertheless, as we have witnessed for years, conservatives are portrayed (by the left-wing media, to be sure) as hard-hearted. Then they lose elections. Then the left-wing (or kind and gentle compassionate Republican) victors promote more bad policies, and the cycle repeats.
With a few exceptions, that is what’s been happening for the last, oh, 60 years. Since the launching of National Review in 1955, government has grown relentlessly, with, perhaps, three exceptions: Reagan’s reduction of the top income-tax rates, welfare reform in the 1990s, and victory in the Cold War, which allowed us to reduce military spending (but did taxes go down?). Other than those victories, conservatives have been losing ground, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Whatever conservatives have been doing, it hasn’t been translating into votes for their presidential candidates recently, or into policies (with those three exceptions) for decades. In sports, when you’re losing, the proper strategy is to change your game. That, expressed differently, may be what Arthur Brooks is saying.
Brooks’s game-changing solution is for conservatives to “articulate” a social justice agenda of their own. Based on his interviews with actual poor and vulnerable citizens, he says that what the poor truly need is: transformation, relief, and opportunity.
By “transformation” he means “personal, moral transformation,” the constituent parts of which are faith, family, community, and work. “Relief” is programs that provide cash, some with incentives attached (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit), some without. “Opportunity” means, essentially, better education.
But it isn’t immediately clear whether Brooks’s argument relates to a need for new programs or only for new packaging.
There isn’t a goal that Brooks suggests that hasn’t been part of the conservatives’ agenda for years, though they may not have been calling it social justice. As for specific programs, Brooks doesn’t propose a single one in his 5,500-word piece. Looking at welfare reform, he says only that “the beginning of an answer … lies in the welfare reform movement of the 1990s.” Yes, and remember how that was vilified—until it was successful; and even then, under Obama, some of the reforms were undone because it didn’t seem, to some people, socially just to impose work requirements on the poor.
Social justice turns out to be a double-edged sword.
Even so, Peter Wehner supports social justice, although he concedes that Friedrich Hayek believed the term was a “hollow incantation,” an “empty formula.” Wehner quotes Irving Kristol: “Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society? I do not think so.” Kristol said that man “cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.” But distributed by what agency? There are only three possibilities: the market, individuals, and the state. In most of the world the state distributes. In most of the world people are miserable. It is not obvious that a reasonable man, looking around, would prefer to live in a “just” society than one in which he was free.
And what, on earth, are “morally meaningful criteria?” Wehner refers us to Psalm 33:5, which in his preferred translation says, “The Lord loves social justice.” But unless the Lord has decided to concern himself with groups instead of individuals (will He—finally, after their 12-year losing streak!—be pulling for Army next year?) “social justice” refers to the actions of individuals—which, yes, would include individuals acting as a group, but only as uncoerced members of a group.
Paul Mirengoff would seem to agree. He says the concept of social justice just doesn’t make sense. Justice is “individual-centric.” “When a person goes to court,” Mirengoff says, “… our system strives to provide him with a result that is fair given what he has done or failed to do.” Yes and no.
Mirengoff may be right about the concept of social justice not making sense, but his example sounds more like social justice than he probably intends. A person’s day in court is supposed to provide him with justice, which may or may not be fair. What we hope is that at least the justice system is fair. For example: Suppose a plaintiff is clearly in the right, but he has waited too long to file his claim, and so it is denied. Is that fair? Perhaps not to the plaintiff, but it is to the defendant, who would otherwise be liable indefinitely. That’s why we have statutes of limitation.
Still, Mirengoff’s instincts are good. He says, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice, such as granting racial preferences or expropriating someone’s property for ‘the greater good.’” Correct. But then he says he agrees with Wehner that “any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society.”
But the issue is not dispensing sympathy and solicitude, which Peter can scatter luxuriantly without diminishing Paul’s supply. The issue is taking a portion of the finite number of dollars Mr. and Mrs. America have so they can be redistributed to Ms. Welfare Mother and her third illegitimate child, whose father was last seen starring in a security-camera video. Mirengoff doesn’t say, specifically, whether he approves of that redistributionist policy. He does say that “vulnerability to injustice can be countered by the rigorous pursuit of simple justice.” But what does that mean? Being poor is a form of injustice? The question is: Does Mirengoff favor, say, food stamps, or does he not?
Perhaps Mirengoff’s point is that if a society is going to claim that it is just for the state to help the poor, it must also claim that it is just for the state to tax the non-poor in order to redistribute their wealth—and therefore we have no need to call that taxing and redistributing “social justice.” But he doesn’t say that, and so we are left wondering which if any welfare programs Mirengoff would have society support in order to be the good society that Wehner describes.
Wehner does not describe the individual programs a society should adopt in order to be socially just, but we can make some guesses by looking at his record as a member of the compassionate conservative Bush administration, which gave us No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug program, and nation-building in Iraq.
Wehner concludes the debate by saying that his differences with Mirengoff are more about semantics than about ends. But that isn’t clear, because Mirengoff doesn’t say what programs or policies his non-social justice polity would sanction. If none, then Mirengoff and Wehner are poles apart.
Where does that take us?
Back to Arthur Brooks. Conservatives may fret over Brooks’s piece because they may think he has a whole packet of social justice reforms up his sleeve.
That, I think, would be to misread Brooks. He is talking about semantics: how conservatives should sell the policy goals, and policies, they have supported, if inarticulately, for years. He must be talking about semantics, because if he’s suggesting that conservatives haven’t been in favor of the policy goals he recommends, he… hasn’t been paying attention.
Brooks says that for too long conservatives have been against things instead of “for people.” Perhaps, but they may have taken their cue from the Ten Commandments, eight of which are negative, or from the Bill of Rights, which is a negation of government power. Our founding documents were crafted specifically to protect us from people like Barack Obama.
Conservatives know the value of faith, community, and work. Heaven knows they know the value of family and of education—look at the efforts they have made to promote various non-governmental solutions to the problems in these areas. And their proposal for Social Security is not to abolish it but to privatize it. Brooks may think that conservatives have been insufficiently articulate, and given their presidential and policy track record, he has a point. But is his point augmented or diminished by Gallup’s finding that 72 percent of Americans describe themselves as either conservatives or moderates? Have conservatives done well, and would they have done better flying a social justice banner? Or worse?
Mirengoff says there are dangers in marching under a social justice banner, and he’s right. One danger is that liberals always have bigger banners. Home ownership for the poor, achieved by requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lower their underwriting standards, was the social justice cause of the last decade. Describe and discuss (use only one blue book).
In addition, many people won’t understand what the social justice banner means. Just explaining how much conservative programs would benefit the poor is not likely to sway voters who neither trust conservatives nor understand why government is, or should be, limited.
Finally, one gets the sense that Arthur Brooks thinks a conservative social justice agenda might play well in the liberal press. If so, Houston, we have a problem.
Maybe, just maybe, the way to capture the public’s attention is to fly a freedom banner and propose something truly new: a massive—20 percent? Wow!—reduction in welfare programs and regulations. Scrap agricultural supports. Abolish the Department of Commerce. Eliminate OSHA. That may be too libertarian for most Republicans, but those kinds of ideas seem to have traction on the campuses. And couldn’t such a program be described as justice, maybe even social justice? If a time limit on filing a claim in court is justice for potential defendants, why isn’t not having to pay taxes to support a thousand wasteful social programs justice for working people?
Well, maybe Brooks is right: Perhaps it’s just semantics after all. Conservatives can continue to care about the nation as they have since, let’s say, 1955, but in public they must emphasize their “sympathy and solicitude” for the poor. Maybe. Maybe not.
What if the Republican Party renamed itself the Sympathy and Solicitude Party. That would shake up 2016, which, conservatives should remember, is an away game. They’re all away games. The sportscasters are the New York Times and the Washington Post and their affiliates, and all the ads will be for liberal candidates.
Brooks is saying, I think, that conservatives have the products. They just need to create better ads. That’s one way of looking at it.